Librarians connect people with information and ideas by organizing and facilitating the retrieval of information in all formats. Dictionaries have long tended to define the word "librarian" as the person in charge of a library. Library users tend to associate the word with anyone who works in a library. Professional associations and those people who work in libraries tend to reserve the appellation for one who holds a master's degree in library and information studies.
The work librarians perform, how and where they do it, and how they are perceived have all evolved in a manner that parallels changes in the way information is produced and stored. Technology fueled this evolution in the twentieth century. Three different library educators, each writing about thirty years apart, defined "librarianship" as follows. In 1933, Pierce Butler wrote that "the fundamental phenomenon of librarianship… is the transmission of the accumulated experience of society to its individual members through the instrumentality of the book" (p. 84). In 1964, another acclaimed library educator, Carl White, wrote that librarianship was concerned with the retention, organization, and use of the accumulated heritage in all its forms, with books and journals being just a part of that heritage (see pp. 10-11). Thirty-four years later, a third library educator, Richard Rubin (1998, p. 379), wrote that "librarians support fundamental democratic values by emphasizing equality of access to knowledge.… Underlying the special character of librarianship is not its techniques, but its underlying values. The significance of librarianship lies not in its mastery of sources, organizational skills, or technological competence, but in why librarians perform the functions they do. The fact that librarianship tends to encompass the vast body of print, audiovisual, and electronic information increases the importance of these underlying values further and differentiates it from other, even kindred, professions such as museum curators or historical society professionals."
Librarians today use an astonishing array of resources as they connect people with information and ideas. In a single working day, a librarian is likely to help a user select a novel for pleasure reading, use the Internet to answer reference questions, help someone learn to retrieve information from CD-ROM databases, and teach a small class how to use World Wide Web search engines. The twenty-first century also finds librarians performing a wide range of work in a variety of exciting settings. The majority of librarians work in traditional school, public, academic, and special libraries (such as corporate, law, or medical libraries). Other librarians bring their specialized knowledge and skills to bear in ventures such as serving as information architects who design intranets, information brokers who retrieve and analyze information on a freelance basis out of their homes or offices, and researchers who work for international consulting firms.
Never before has the librarians' ability to understand and use a wide variety of methods to organize and retrieve information been so much in demand. As more and more information is produced daily, and as instant access to that information becomes vital, the need for technologically savvy librarians will continue to grow. Information literacy (teaching people how to access and interpret information in all formats) is an increasingly significant part of thelibrarians' charge. For the first time ever, the librarians' ability to analyze users' needs to determine what information is appropriate and then to select, acquire, organize, and retrieve information that meets those needs is considered chic in many circles.
Like all professions, librarianship offers specialties and subspecialties. The primary demarcations in the field are set by the type of library one works in (i.e., public, academic, school, or special). Other specialties are formed by the type of work, such as catalogers, systems librarians, children's librarians, or collection development librarians. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (2000) of the U.S. Department of Labor, librarians held about 152,000 jobs in 1998. Most were in school and academic libraries, while others were in public and special libraries. A small number of librarians worked for hospitals and religious organizations, while others worked for governments at all levels. About one-third of all librarians held part-time positions in 1996.
In order to become a librarian, one needs a master's degree in library and information studies. Most professional positions in public and academic libraries require that the degree be from a program accredited by the American Library Association. School library media specialists must be certified by the state in which they are employed. Certification requirements vary, but most states require a master's degree. Special librarian positions also usually require a master's degree with additional education or significant experience in the subject area. For example, most law librarians hold a law degree as well as a master's in library and information studies (MLIS) and engineering librarians might hold a bachelor's degree in a scientific area as well as an MLIS degree.
Career paths vary widely. Since many libraries are small, they might only employ one professional librarian. Other libraries are huge, employing thousands of people, and thus offer considerable opportunity for administrative advancement. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics (2000), the median annual salary of all professional librarians was $38,470. Librarians employed by the federal government received an average annual salary of $56,400 in 1999.
Librarianship is primarily a service profession, but one that requires an increasingly broad technological base. Because of this, librarianship is one of the more unusual professions in the twenty-first century. Librarians can be found connecting people with information in settings such as branch libraries serving large urban housing projects, bookmobiles equipped with Internet workstations connected by satellite or cellular modems, and ultramodern health sciences libraries on university research campuses. While the setting and the clientele vary, the mission of each librarian is the same today as it was at the dawn of the printed word: to connect people with the information and ideas they need and want.
Butler, Pierce. (1933). An Introduction to Library Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rubin, Richard E. (1998). Foundations of Library and Information Science. New York: Neal-Schuman.
U.S. Department of Labor. (2000). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001. Indianapolis, IN: JIST Publishing.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2001). "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Librarians." <http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos068.htm>.
White, Carl M., ed. (1964). Bases of Modern Librarianship. New York: Macmillan.
Ann K. Symons