Careers in Academic & Science Librarianship
“…there are few pleasures comparable to that of associating continually with curious and vigorous young minds, and of aiding them in realizing their ideals.”
---Samuel S. Green, American Library Journal, vol. 1, Oct. 1876, page 81.
Do you get a thrill out of solving mysteries? Do the forensic techniques in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or NCIS intrigue you so much that you immediately run to the nearest computer to look up more details? Do you have an eye for odd details that allow you put pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together faster than anyone else in your family? Do you enjoy the intellectual stimulation of scientific research but get frustrated by experiment failures in the laboratory? Do you have an insatiable curiosity? Are you fascinated by the experiments done by the Mythbusters and continually trying to shoot holes in their procedures? Do you like working with medical information, but get a bit nauseous looking at some of the pictures or blood? Does locating obscure information make you glow? Do you like helping students but feel a bit traumatized or burned out as a classroom teacher? Do you like helping others improve their research skills? If you answered YES to more than one of these questions, you may want to consider a career in academic or science librarianship.
Contrary to popular myth, librarians do not sit around all day and read books. They also do not tend to be old ladies with their hair in a bun who walk around the library shushing people. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of male librarians, very few librarians have hair long enough to put in a bun, and reports of our shushing have been greatly exaggerated. Other common myths are that librarians all have English Literature degrees and excel at Trivial Pursuits or Jeopardy! Well, that’s not completely true either. Many librarians do have English or History degrees, but there are just as many librarians out there with a wide range of other subject backgrounds. Some librarians could be mistaken for “walking encyclopedias” and others are not. Hollywood has done a lot to perpetuate these stereotypes...but if you’re curious about the truth, read on.
The people who work at the various service desks around the library are the most visible members of the library staff. Staffing varies at every library, but they tend to be a mixture of student assistants, full-time staff members, and librarians. The Reference Desk is staffed by librarians who are exceedingly good at knowing which resource (regardless of print or electronic) would answer a specific question and how to locate different types of information. Each of them has a different subject background and expertise – e.g., engineering, life sciences, business, music, history, and psychology. There are also many librarians who work behind the scenes. Less visible librarians include archivists, preservation librarians, catalogers, digital services librarians, electronic resource librarians, information technology librarians, collection development librarians, and library administrators. Preservation librarians repair torn pages, keep materials from falling apart, and develop new techniques for ensuring older materials are protected from damage due to insects, careless users, and water leaks. Electronic resource librarians keep track of purchases and problems with electronic journals, databases, and e-books. Digital services librarians are responsible for the digitization and preservation of electronic images for a wide variety of research resources – such as books, old photographs, and herbarium specimens. Archivists collect historical materials and help researchers who are interested in locating information found in primary source materials such as diaries, manuscripts, and letters. They also acquire and preserve important documents and other valuable items for permanent storage (e.g., memorabilia related to university history and personal papers of prominent local individuals). It takes a lot of dedicated individuals to keep the physical and virtual libraries running smoothly.
Librarianship is increasingly a second or third career opportunity!! In 1989, a research study reported that 30.2% of students surveyed chose to pursue their LIS degree after working in a non-library field. By 2005, studies found that 53% of recent library school graduates went to library school as a second or third career. A survey of recent library school graduates asked why they chose the profession. Those who worked in libraries as support staff members loved the work and chose to pursue the professional degree as a form of job advancement. Others loved books and reading, had the desire to help people find information they need, or desired a career that serves the needs of both individuals and society. Science librarians have also been surveyed to find out why they switched from science to library & information science (LIS). One-fourth of the respondents had become disillusioned or dissatisfied with their science career due to reasons such as industry layoffs, limited career opportunities in sciences without a PhD, or irregular work hours. The other three-fourths were drawn to LIS due to “their love of the scientific and technical literature as well as the fun and challenge of information research.” The intangible plusses of library work have been described as: cooperation and congeniality, opportunity to make a difference, intellectual stimulation and life-long learning, variety, and job security.
What does it take to become a librarian?
A B.A. or B.S. in any field provides the foundation for librarianship (no undergraduate work in library science is required). A Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from one of the 56 schools accredited by the American Library Association is all you need for most library careers, although some library careers have slightly different degree preferences (e.g., archivists and preservation librarians).
“Librarianship offers a better field for mental gymnastics than any other profession.”
---Anon, “Continuity,” Harper’s Weekly, v. 34, no. 1758, August 30, 1890, page 686.
Careers in Academic Libraries – by Gwendolyn Bradley, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 20, 2001.
Faces of a Profession – this is a video that can be viewed on the web using RealMedia Player. It highlights the role of academic librarians and the satisfactions to be realized in the profession. It includes interviews with academic librarians who discuss what they do and why they made their career choices.
Job of a Lifetime – by Ann Wheeler, C&RL News, February 2008. (Describes an agricultural sciences librarian job at Purdue.)
Leaving Science for LIS – by Julie Hallmark and Mary Frances Lembo, ISTL, Spring 2003.
Medical Librarianship: A Career Beyond the Cutting Edge – from the Medical Library Association
A Passion for Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It – a Reflective Inquiry – by Steven J. Bell, portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 3, no. 4 (2003), pages 633-642. (Link will only work for those whose library has a subscription to this electronic journal via Project Muse.) This article “explores the sources of passion that make academic librarianship a rewarding profession.”
Putting Your Ph.D. to Work in the Library – by Todd Gilman, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2004.
Some Resources on Careers in Chemical Information – by Philip Barnett, American Chemical Society, Sept. 2003.
Who Chooses Sci-Tech Librarianship? – by Jill M. Hackenberg – originally appeared in College & Research Libraries, September 2000, pp. 441-450.
Why Be a Science Librarian? – from the Science & Technology Section of the American Library Association.
Why Be an Academic Librarian? – from the Association of College & Research Libraries
You Might Be An Academic or Research Librarian If You... – PDF page from ACRL.
Unsure if librarianship is the right career for you? Librarians’ jobs vary depending on the library and the region of the country. Some work with the public and others participate behind the scenes. Go talk to some college or university librarians. Find out what their typical workday is like, what gives them their greatest job pleasures, and what sorts of job duties they dislike. You may also want to visit a few general articles on librarianship:
Jobs Rated Report 2016: Ranking 200 Jobs – from CareerCast.com – librarianship is #44. Jobs were rated on income, working environment, stress, physical demands and job outlook.
Librarians – from the Occupational Outlook Handbook (the classic work on careers). The page includes salaries, job outlook, and pretty generic information on what librarians do.
Me? A Librarian? – Follow the link to “Oh the Places You’ll Go” to pick a specific type of library or a type of library job.
Top Ten Reasons to Become a Librarian – by Martha J. Spear – originally appeared in American Libraries, October 2002, pp. 54–55. “Grand Purpose” is a lovely concept!
You Don’t Look Like a Librarian! – by Ruth A. Kneale – a collection of talks and resources relating to the image and perception of librarians in the Internet age
Recommended books on the topic:
Academic Librarianship (by Camila A. Alire and G. Edward Evans, New York: Neal-Schuman, 2010). This is marketed as a textbook for library school students. The table of contents can give a good feel for the various aspects of the job duties and knowledge required for this career.
A Day in the Life: Career Options in Library and Information Science (edited by Priscilla K. Shontz and Richard A. Murray, Libraries Unlimited, 2007). “The editors of LIScareer.com have assembled 95 authors, each of whom describes a typical workday or work routine, sharing joys, sorrows, and annoyances in refreshingly candid fashion. In the process, they offer those interested in finding a similar job exposure to useful skills and advice across a wide variety of traditional and nontraditional jobs.”
Mastering Subject Specialties: Practical Advice from the Field (edited by Karen Sobel, Libraries Unlimited, 2016)
This book is useful for those considering librarianship in the first place (providing advice on educational backgrounds needed, internships, career paths, typical workplaces, etc.) and includes both subject specialties and generalist career information. For those who are newly-minted librarians, it gives advice on “publications to follow” and the best professional organizations to consider joining in the subject area. For the sciences, librarianship is categorized into: physical sciences, biological sciences, engineering and applied sciences as well as health sciences. It also gives a nice overview of researcher needs and communication styles in various subject areas. On the down side, some of the information is extremely general.
Rethinking Information Work: A Career Guide for Librarians and Other Information Professionals (by Kim G. Dority, Libraries Unlimited, 2006 – pages 50-55 cover academic librarianship). “Leading you through a process of planning the information career of your choice, it shows you how to determine what type of work would be most fulfilling to you, explores what types of work are available to those with an LIS-based skill set, and helps you create an action plan for accomplishing your career goals and reaching your full professional potential.”
“...beneath these complexities lie the great simplicities of humane librarianship – that books are basic, that people are good, and that bringing the two together, so that books are made more useful and people more fruitful, is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences on earth. It is called librarianship.”
---Lawrence Clark Powell, UCLA Librarian in A Passion for Books (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1958, p. 184. This book is a bit old but very inspiring to read. The quote can be modernized very nicely by replacing the word “book” with “information.”)
Ready to take the plunge into librarianship? Directory of ALA-accredited Master's Programs in Library and Information Studies is a searchable directory of programs currently accredited by the American Library Association, with links to websites for each of the programs.
“[A librarian] is the Prometheus who will bring the light of learning to the masses.”
---Matthew Battles, Libraries: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, page 149.
“Every day I look forward to going to work. Every day.”
---Ed Goedeken, humanities librarian (in newspaper article written by Jessie Diest, “Grant Helping to Prevent Librarian Shortage,” Iowa State Daily, Nov. 21, 2003.)
Page created: June 5, 2004
Links last checked: June 21, 2016
Text last updated: June 21, 2016
©2016, Lorraine J. Pellack - Send questions or comments about this page