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Start the Next Chapter of Your Life With This Guide to Library Careers
Deirdre Root dedicated 35 years of her life to a career as a librarian. She started out as a shelver at her university library and then moved on to the role of reference librarian at MidPointe Library in Middletown, Ohio, before retiring.
“And I never regretted a minute of it,” she told me.
According to Root, librarians do a lot more than shelve books and ask you to cough up 40 cents when your book is overdue. Her job was about closing the information gap by giving people access to information and education regardless of income or technological understanding. Ultimately, she spent those 35 years “making people happy,” she said.
“Some people ask if books and therefore libraries are going away,” Root said. “Absolutely not! Books are still relatively cheap, very portable, a stable platform and don’t run out of battery. Even if they were to disappear tomorrow, though, libraries would still be important. If a person needs an expensive piece of equipment in order to get a book or information, that expands the information gap even more than it is now. Libraries will be there to help.”
Root’s thoughts on the future of libraries seem to be in line with Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections. In fact, the BLS estimates that job demand for librarians will increase by 9% between now and 2026. The average growth rate across all occupations is 7%.
That makes now as good a time as any to take the plunge to become a librarian.
Qualities and Skills of a Successful Librarian
Not sure if you’ve got what it takes to make it as a librarian? I asked Root to tell me what general qualities are necessary to be successful.
“Library work involves a lot of teaching, so it's important to enjoy that (usually one-on-one or in
small groups),” Root said. “You also need a willingness to be flexible and open to new technologies. A lifelong love of books and of learning is, of course, one of the most important factors in job success and satisfaction.”
According to LearnHowToBecome.org, librarians also need patience, interpersonal and communication skills, technical literacy and attention to detail. The American Library Association adds a desire to contribute to the greater good of a literate society, a willingness to connect with people of different backgrounds and a strong belief in the First Amendment as key characteristics of effective librarians.
A professional career as a librarian will require a master’s degree, meaning a big up-front commitment right out of the gate. If you would rather do some exploring within the field before committing to an advanced degree, Root recommends finding work at a branch at the entry level to see if you are up to the task. (“It is a very intensive customer service job,” she added.)
According to the ALA, you can typically find work as a library assistant with just a high school diploma or a GED certificate. You will get on-the-job training if you go that route and can pursue a degree if the career feels right for you. Some libraries will also hire library technicians with a high school diploma, though others require postsecondary education.
Day-to-Day Routine of a Librarian
“We have always been the place to go to do research, whether for a term paper or your family tree or a reliable plumber or college scholarships,” Root said. “The methods have changed (we now use computers much more than paper sources), but the technique of research hasn’t. The internet now has so much information, much of it wrong or outdated, that providing guidance is more important than ever.”
From Root, I learned that there is no firm day-to-day routine. The role of a librarian can be varied and changes with each patron’s needs.
Librarians can be found working in museums, colleges, schools, businesses, hospitals and libraries. They digitize archives, run social media, design websites, teach patrons, lead research and run activities with children and adults. In short, the job is so much more than alphabetizing biographies and connecting computers to the internet.
How to Become a Librarian: Schooling
If you wish to move past the library assistant role and do more than shelve books or stand at the circulation desk, you will need to earn an advanced degree, specifically a master’s degree in library and information studies.
There are a number of ALA-accredited programs for library science. Though some employers will hire librarians with a degree from a program that is not accredited, the ALA notes that “the majority of employers require an ALA-accredited master’s for professional positions.” My take? Better safe than sorry.
Root added, “Many libraries have programs to help their employees financially if they want to get a master’s degree, and there are some very good online programs you can choose.”
Before you can earn your master’s in library and information studies, you’ll need to complete your undergraduate degree. According to the ALA, the specific degree is not important because any degree will demand that you learn more through research — which is, in itself, practice in being a librarian.
LearnHowToBecome.org recommends taking courses in your undergraduate studies that focus on information technology, history and education. The skills learned in these areas of study are likely to influence your professional career as a librarian.
LearnHowToBecome.org identifies typical courses you can expect in your pursuit of a master’s in the field: informatics organization, classification and cataloging, developing and managing collections, computer and human interactions, behavior and information technology, and copyright and licensing.
When choosing a school, future students should consider program emphasis, course offerings, costs and admissions requirements, the ALA advises.
You can apply for scholarships directly through the association, which awards more than $300,000 a year to students pursuing this degree.
Employment as a Librarian
Your career as a librarian can take several routes. While Root worked as a reference librarian for 30 years, others with similar degrees might decide to work at schools, universities or museums. Jobs run the gamut, from outreach librarian or school librarian to library manager or even library director.
The median salary for a librarian in 2017 was $58,520, but this will vary greatly based on your area of expertise and your time in the position.
Need help finding a job? The ALA is a good resource for gaining employment as a librarian once you have earned your degree.
As you consider whether a career as a librarian is right for you — and as you seek out the required education to become one — don’t forget to make use of all the research and resources available to you. I hear the library is a good place to start.
Timothy Moore is an editor, freelance writer and avid reader. He likes to think of libraries like airports — they can take you to wonderful new places, and for a heck of a lot less money.