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A Day in the Life of a Librarian

Librarians are the custodians of our culture’s retrievable media—books and audio and visual materials—and other data or physical objects that can be catalogued and stored. The modern librarian is the manager of an enormous warehouse, and people rely on him or her to help them navigate the increasingly voluminous world of data. Research and computer skills are important; therefore, people who are generally less comfortable with computers find the transition to online archives much more difficult. Be prepared to work under real deadlines and significant pressure; individuals with corporate library jobs will find that although the salaries are higher, “if you can’t do the job when they really need you, they’ll show you the door.” Librarians who specialize in medicine or law will find their professions more lucrative than general librarians, but the books won’t be the kind you take home and read for a little relaxation. Especially for specialists, graduate studies prove invaluable for a successful transition to working life. A librarian spends more than 60 percent of his or her day working with people, either library patrons or other staffers and back-office workers. Strong interpersonal skills are required for individuals who hope to succeed in this field. “You’ve got to be polite even when you want to break someone’s neck, which happens Monday morning about 10 and lasts through Saturday at four,” said one 15-year veteran of the St. Louis public library system. Librarians also work closely with their colleagues; they loan books, advise one another, and discuss daily work issues on a regular basis. More than 50 percent of our respondents called their professional community “supportive.” “I’m surrounded by books all day, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted,” reported one happy librarian. A librarian does far more than sit at the desk and check books in and out of the library. A large part of his or her job is research. The most-cited positive feature about being a librarian was the sense of continuous education. Librarians are challenged daily to find creative ways of retrieving a different information; and how well they can satisfy these requests determines their success and satisfaction in the profession.

Paying Your Dues

A bachelor’s degree is required, and a master’s in library science is a plus; PhDs are becoming more common among professional librarians, as well. Some states require certification. Only 59 schools offering graduate degrees are accredited by the American Library Association, so check before you enroll. Graduate classwork includes classification, cataloging, computer courses, and reference work. Some graduate programs require students to know a foreign language. A strong sense of current events and contemporary themes is helpful. A sense of aesthetics helps, too; it is not unusual for a librarian to design a library exhibit. Individuals wishing to become school librarians must also complete any teaching certifications required.

Present and Future

John Harvard created the first library in the United States when he left his book collection to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s college in 1638; before long, Benjamin Franklin democratized the library concept by proposing that people have the right to borrow and use books. Today there are more than 117,000 libraries in the United States, with the Library of Congress housing 130 million items on approximately 530 miles of bookshelves. And that’s just one collection (albeit a large one). The future of librarians is linked to three things: public funding for the public library system, private donations that support libraries, and the growth of technology within the public and private library system. Technological by-products expected to change the field include the development of Web-based information architecture, the shift of emphasis from privately owned to publicly shared information, and the increased acquisition of nonprint materials. Although the online cataloguing of books may seem to threaten the position of the librarian, aspiring professionals should remember two key facts: frequently, librarians are the people responsible for creating and maintaining online catalogs; and books aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Quality of Life


In larger libraries, assistant or junior librarians manage discrete library areas that focus on organization and tracking, such as the periodicals desk or reshelving. Librarians with two years of experience sit in on meetings and are expected to provide input. These first two years are educational years, spent learning the system and the people associated with the specific library you enter. Recognition is limited, the hours are average, and pay is mediocre in the early years. Individuals in the corporate sector are likely to face long hours and potentially much more responsibility, along with higher wages. Many new librarians are overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a librarian; perhaps that is why the profession has a 30 percent first-year attrition rate. But those individuals who survive the first year seem very capable of surviving in the profession for the long haul.


The attrition rate after the first two years settles off at about 5 percent. Responsibilities increase, as do hours and pay. Daily tasks may include helping to plan fund-raising drives, looking into book-tracking systems, negotiating with vendors for library supplies, handling complaints, and satisfying unusual requests for information. Most librarians who wish to rise in rank have completed their master’s by this time; they attend lectures and conferences and subscribe to librarian newsletters. Librarians start managing large staffs of reshelvers, checkout personnel, and administrators.


Ten-year veterans have significant input and responsibilities. They may work closely with directors in deciding budgetary priorities, steering the direction the library takes. Satisfaction is highest during these influential years, and individuals who stay in the profession for 10 years are expected to remain for many more.