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What is a Librarian?



When people ask me what I do, I have to admit I feel a bit of angst. I could just say I’m a librarian. After all I’ve been in the library game for nearly 10 years now. I went to library school, got a library degree, and I now work at FSU’s Strozier library with a bunch of librarians on library projects. It feels a bit disingenuous to call myself a librarian though because the word “librarian” is not in my job title. Our library, like all others, draws a sharp distinction between librarians and staff. Calling myself a librarian may feel right, but it is a total lie in the eyes of Human Resources. If I take the HR stance on my job, “what I do” becomes  a lot harder to explain. The average friend or family member has a vague understanding of what a librarian is, but phrases like “web programming” and “digital scholarship” invite more questions than they answer (assuming their eyes don’t glaze over immediately and they change the subject). The true answer about “what I do” lies somewhere in the middle of all this, not quite librarianship and not just programming. When I first got this job, I spent quite a bit of time wrestling with labels, and all of this philosophical judo kept returning to the same questions: What is a librarian, really? And what’s a library? What is librarianship? These are probably questions that people in less amorphous positions don’t have to think about. If you work at a reference desk or edit MARC records in the catalog, you probably have a pretty stable answer to these questions.

At a place like Strozier library, where we have a cadre of programmers with LIS degrees and job titles like Digital Scholarship Coordinator and Data Research Librarian, the answer gets really fuzzy. I’ve discussed this topic with a few coworkers, and there seems to be a recurring theme: “Traditional Librarianship” vs. “What We Do”. “Traditional Librarianship” is the classic cardigan-and-cats view we all learned in library school, usually focusing on the holy trinity of reference, collection development and cataloging. These are jobs that EVERY library has to engage in to some degree, so it’s fair to think of these activities as a potential core for librarianship and libraries. The “What We Do” part of the equation encapsulates everything else: digital humanities, data management, scholarly communication, emerging technologies, web programming, etc. These activities have become a canonical part of the library landscape in recent years, and reflect the changing role libraries are playing in our communities. Libraries aren’t just places to ask questions and find books anymore.

The issue as I see it now becomes how we can reconcile the “What We Do” with the “Traditional” to find some common ground in defining librarianship; if we can do that then we might have an answer to our question. An underlying characteristic of almost all library jobs is that, even if they don’t fall squarely under one of the domains of this so-called “Traditional Librarianship”, they still probably include some aspects of it. Scholarly communication positions could be seen as a hybrid collection development/reference position due to the liaison work, faculty consultation and the quest to obtain Open Access faculty scholarship for the institutional repository. My programming work on the FSU Digital Library could be seen as a mix of collection development and cataloging since it involves getting new objects and metadata into our digital collections. The deeper I pursue this line of thinking, the less satisfying it gets. I’m sure you could make the argument that any job is librarianship if you repackage its core duties in just the right way. I don’t feel like I’m a librarian because I kinda sorta do collection development and cataloging.

I feel like a librarian because I care about the same things as other librarians. The same passion that motivates a “traditional” librarian to help their community by purchasing more books or helping a student make sense of a database is the same passion that motivates me to migrate things into our institutional repository or make a web interface more intuitive. Good librarians all want to make the world a better place in their own way (none of us chose librarianship because of the fabulous pay). In this sense, I suppose I see librarianship less as a set of activities and more as a set of shared values and duties to our communities. The ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship does a pretty good job of summing things up, and this has finally satisfied my philosophical quest for the Platonic ideal of a librarian. I no longer see place of work, job title, duties or education as having much bearing on whether or not you are truly a librarian. If you care about information and want to do good with it, that’s enough for me. Others are free to put more rigorous constraints on the profession if they want, but in order for libraries to survive I think we should be more focused on letting people in than on keeping people out.

What does librarianship mean to you? Following along with other LITA bloggers as we explore this topic from different writers’ perspectives. Keep the conversation going in the comments!


  1. Michael Rodriguez

    Bryan, this is such a great, thoughtful post. I never experienced the same degree of existential angst, as my title is E-Learning Librarian (got that buzzword in there 🙂 and as I do a lot of mainstream librarian-esque things, particularly reference and information literacy instruction.

    But managing electronic resources, running a website, tracking invoices, and negotiating pricing with vendors was never something I expected to do as a librarian. I certainly did not expect to spend a whole morning this week troubleshooting an LDAP authentication error, walking a pair of students through login issues (resolved, yay!), and training faculty to create screencasts.

    Bryan, you and I are the new faces of librarianship. I deliver and facilitate information access and literacy; therefore, I am a librarian. Your job as a developer facilitates access to digital scholarship; therefore, you are a librarian. In short, we both “open access” for our users. 😉

  2. Karla Castle

    I’ve worked in cataloging, public services, e-resources, web librarian, and now am a head librarian at an international secondary school. I gather, organize, and disseminate information. This is true of every position I’ve held. The details differ, but the heart of it remains the same.

  3. Lori Smith

    One of my professors in library school (David Kaiser) said that librarians “acquire, organize, preserve, and deliver the human record.” That definition has always served me well, no matter how far from the “traditional” my activities may have strayed.

  4. M. K. Wiseman

    I found this post validating. Thank you. Since leaving a job that had “librarian” as the title but not as the work–not even by a long shot–I’ve found it hard to defend that decision during my job hunt. The last impression I ever want to give is the idea that I would have jumped ship simply because I was not being flexible. That’s one of the things we librarians do best. Our skills are varied and far reaching, giving us currency in a world no longer all that excited by the concept of a roomful of books.
    Taking a line from Karla’s comment above, the heart was not present in my previous job even if the title remained. I was as much a librarian as I was a pilot of a jumbo jet.
    I see this post as a compass, better expressing than I ever could the core of what I was missing, a reminder of why I pursued this profession and paid for a degree in it.
    Thank you!

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