“Compare the environments and organizational settings in which library and information professionals practice.”
The 21st century information specialist faces a changing professional environment. But even as our definition of “librarian” undergoes change, certain structures will remain in place well into our future. The classical strata of libraries – public, academic, school, and “special” – will remain in place for a number of logistical reasons. The aspiring librarian needs to understand the full array of different organizations and the mandates that drive their services. Equally important, the professional needs to understand that even within these categories, substantial differences can exist.
Public libraries continue to thrive as a part of the governmental infrastructure of our municipalities, counties and states. Public libraries as a category remain the single largest employer of MLIS graduates. While public libraries suffer from funding cuts during down periods of the economy, their importance to the community only grows, as the free services they provide become more and more vital. Increasingly, the traditional services of the public library – collection and dissemination of books and periodicals – is giving way to a new suite of responsibilities, such as providing digital access, adult education, job search assistance, and community organization and outreach. While the public librarian has new digital tools at his or her fingertips, their goal has remained essentially unchanged for over a century: providing access to information for free, to educate, entertain or otherwise assist the citizenry.
It is important to understand that even public libraries can have substantial differences in organization and mission. In my LIBR-200 course with Professor Jean Bedord, I interviewed librarians at two different branches of the San Francisco Public Library. It was interesting to learn firsthand just how different these affiliated libraries were from each other. The two libraries I investigated were the Park Branch library, on Page Street in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District, and the Chinatown Branch, on Stockton Street. The former is a small library serving an affluent residential community, while the latter is a large, bustling library with extensive Chinese language services. I am submitting the essay I wrote as a result of these interviews as evidence of my understanding of differences between professional settings (Exhibit B-1). The paper highlights the divergent methods those institutions use to better serve their communities.
Universities and colleges are mandated to have a physical, staffed library as part of their accreditation. These libraries can take many different shapes – a small, private liberal arts University will have one centralized academic library with a general collection, while a large research institution will have a substantial system with a central library and many specialist branches (such as UC Berkeley’s thirty-seven on-campus libraries). Technical differences also exist between Public and Academic Libraries. For instance, most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal system of classification, whereas nearly all academic libraries use the Library of Congress system.
In the Fall of 2008, I interned at the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library | Geschke Center. This experience provided me a great deal of insight into the many duties of the Academic Librarian, and a better sense of how their clientele differs from the public libraries I had studied in the prior year. My internship responsibilities were patterned after the duties of the staff reference librarians; I spent a lot of time providing academic reference and leading library instruction courses. This gave me a solid understanding of how an academic library differed from a public library. While at a public library a lot of time is spent directing traffic, running outreach efforts and inspiring readers, a significant part of the academic librarian’s job is to educate undergraduate students about the online research tools available to them through the library’s subscriptions – most academic libraries subscribe to a much wider set of databases than the typical public library. You also assist graduate students and faculty on in-depth research topics, a type of extended reference interview rarely given in a typical public library.
I am submitting my Final Report on my service as a Gleeson Library Intern as evidence of my understanding of the academic library setting (Exhibit B-2).
School librarians, sometimes called School Library Media Specialists or Teacher-Librarians, serve in public and private elementary, middle and high schools — grades K-12. Of course, the needs of an elementary school library can differ quite dramatically from a high school library, so a professional needs to have a clear understanding of different age groups and educational levels in order to adequately perform their job. It should also be noted that students are not the only patrons in the school library. The library also serves the teachers and school administration.
The challenges faced by school librarians can differ significantly from a public or academic librarian. While librarians in public or academic settings can focus on a specialty, a school librarian often works alone or in a small team and performs a full suite of professional level services, such as reference, collection development, and cataloging. They also by necessity perform a number of paraprofessional duties, such as shelving and circulation. Some teach classes as well as manage the school library, or support the libraries of multiple schools. The school librarian should have a clear understanding of educational theory, the objectives of the school district and how their library can support school curriculum.
Despite the fact that numerous surveys highlight the value school libraries and media centers bring to a campus, the school librarian needs the political skill to advocate for his or her institution’s library when budget discussions take place — cash-strapped school and districts often cut the library budget first in times of crisis.
Professional qualifications for school librarians can vary by school district and state. Some require the librarian to have a teacher credential, or a school library media credential. Most but not all prefer candidates with the MLIS degree. Private schools can set their own criteria. A potential candidate for a school library position should research the legal requirements and hiring preferences of a given school before applying.
Many corporations, law firms and cultural institutions require a centrally organized resource for their research and outreach needs. The term “Special Libraries” is used as a catch-all phrase to describe what is a highly varied field. The research library at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for example, has little to do with the law library of an accounting firm. However, both are described as “Special Libraries”. What these types of libraries tend to share in common is specialization on the part of the information professional; an art institution’s library will hire staff with advanced degrees in art history or design, while a law library will prize MLIS-graduates who also hold a JD. Likewise, an archival organization – not a special library per se, but often a division within an institutional library – will hire professionals with a specialized historical knowledge relating to their collection.
Special libraries constituted one of my first interests in the information field. I wrote a research paper in the Fall of 2007 on the subject of the Information Professional in the museum workplace, not only in affiliated libraries but also working on Information Architecture and metadata and in curatorial positions. I submit that paper as evidence of my understanding of the circumstances surrounding this segment of the Special Libraries field (Exhibit B-3).
Of course, depending on their educational focus, a 2009 MLIS graduate may find work outside any of these traditional settings. Digital Libraries and Archives are a newly developing field in need of professional talent. The technical skills gained by many aspiring Information Professionals also translate into IT-related positions at a variety of corporate and government institutions.
It is often claimed that many MLIS graduates will work an extensive career without ever having “Librarian” feature in their job title. However, for those of us who aspire to the roll of Librarian, a solid understanding of the differences between Public, Academic, School and Special Libraries is fundamental.
Exhibit B-1: San Francisco Public Library Branches: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods | Available upon request
Exhibit B-2: Internship Final Report | Available upon request
Exhibit B-3: You Should Be in a Museum: Opportunities for the Information Professional | Available upon request