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What is a Librarian and What Do They Do?

Are you interested in pursuing a career as a librarian? If you enjoy working with information and various forms of media, becoming a librarian may be a good fit for you. Specific job duties can vary significantly based on the type of library at which you are employed, such as a public library, academic library, or medical library. Most librarians assist others in conducting both personal and professional research.

A common misconception is that becoming a librarian requires little to no special training. It is important to realize, however, that whether you are a prospective student, are currently working toward a degree, or are already professionally employed, becoming a librarian will require time and dedication.

While specific job responsibilities can vary a lot from position to position, the primary functions of librarians are to help people find information and conduct research. In many cases, these professionals may also teach classes about important information resources, help visitors evaluate search results, organize library materials, and plan programs for different audiences. Additionally, some companies employ a librarian who is specifically in charge of organizing documents and literature related to their business.

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Steps to Become a Librarian:

As with other professions, becoming a librarian requires acquiring the appropriate level of education before finding professional employment. For most positions, this means earning a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree. In some cases, however, a degree in another field may be necessary as well. Individuals who plan to work in a public school library will also need a teacher’s certification. Requirements for librarians vary by state, so be sure to research your state’s specific expectations before enrolling in an academic program.

  • Step 1: Enroll in a Relevant Undergraduate Degree Program

  • Step 2: Complete an Accredited Master of Library Science Degree

  • Step 3: Acquire Specialized Field Knowledge if Necessary

  • Step 4: Seek Certification Based on State Guidelines

  • Step 5: Find Professional Employment and Join a Professional Organization


Step 1: Enroll in a Relevant Undergraduate Degree Program

While a graduate degree is required for most librarian positions, you will need to enroll in and complete an undergraduate program first. Unless you plan to seek employment in a specific industry, this degree can be in any major. The majority of MLS degree programs do not have specific course prerequisites.

A typical bachelor’s degree consists of 120 credit hours of coursework and can be completed in four years by students who are enrolled full-time. Online programs can be completed in comparable timeframes. If, however, you plan to attend school as a part-time student, you should expect to graduate within five to eight years. The curriculum will depend on the major you choose.

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Step 2: Complete an Accredited Master of Library Science Degree

There are some exceptions, but most librarians need to earn an MLS degree. While many colleges and universities offer programs with this name, some refer to the degree as a Master of Information Studies or Master of Library and Information Studies.

Graduate programs generally consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and can be completed in two years by students who are enrolled fulltime. Some MLS programs allow students to graduate in as little as a single year.

Coursework typically covers the following:

  • Selecting library materials
  • Organizing information
  • Learning different research methods and strategies
  • Online reference systems
  • Internet search techniques

Before selecting a graduate degree program, you should confirm that it is properly accredited. Attending an unaccredited college or university may make it difficult to transfer credits, apply for higher education, and find suitable employment. Give preference to institutions accredited by the American Library Association. The American Library Association is a national organization that promotes libraries and library education. Depending on your career goals, a program accredited by a regional association may also be sufficient.

Step 3: Acquire Specialized Field Knowledge if Necessary

If you intend to find employment with a special library, such as a law, medical, or corporate library, you will need to supplement your graduate degree with knowledge of this specialized field. Librarians working in law libraries, for example, usually have a degree in law and librarians working in academic libraries often have doctorates.

In some cases, a related undergraduate degree will be enough to obtain employment at one of these specialized libraries. Other employers may require either a master’s degree or doctorate. You will need to thoroughly research the type of librarian job you want to determine the exact education requirements.

Step 4: Seek Certification Based on State Guidelines

Most public school librarians are expected to have a teacher’s certification. Many undergraduate teaching degree programs offer certification, but it can be obtained at the graduate level as well. As part of this process, some states require librarians to take and successfully pass standardized tests. An example of this is the PRAXIS II Library Media Specialist exam. You will need to research your state’s specific regulations for public school librarians.

Public school librarians are not the only professionals in the field who require certification. Many states expect librarians working in public libraries to be certified as well. These requirements vary significantly and you should contact your state’s licensing board for specific expectations and guidelines.

Step 5: Find Professional Employment and Join a Professional Organization

Librarians can begin looking for employment immediately after completing the minimum educational and certification requirements. It is worth noting, however, that those with higher-level degrees tend to have better employment opportunities, make more money, and have more job advancement opportunities.

Students and professionals alike should strongly consider joining one or more professional organizations for librarians. These are available at the state, national, and international levels and are available to individuals at every level of their career. While membership benefits vary significantly, most organizations offer exclusive access to field resources, discounts, training, certification programs, and networking opportunities.

Some of the most prominent professional organizations, associations, and societies for librarians include:

  • American Association of School Librarians (AASL)
  • Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL)
  • American Library Association (ALA)
  • Association for Library Collections & Technical Service (ALCTS)
  • American Association of Law Libraries (AALL)
  • Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)
  • Library of Information and Technology Association (LITA)
  • Library Leadership & Management Association (LLAMA)
  • Medical Library Association (MLA)
  • Public Library Association (PLA)

What Does a School Librarian / Librarian Do?

The primary responsibilities of librarians, regardless of which industry they work within, are to help visitors find information and conduct research for personal and professional purposes. Daily tasks often depend on the size of a given library. At smaller libraries, for instance, librarians often juggle many aspects of library operations. Professionals at larger libraries, however, usually focus on a single aspect of library work, such as user services, technical services, or administrative services.

While the specific job requirements of a librarian can vary from position to position, common responsibilities include:

  • Designing and teaching classes about information resources
  • Helping patrons evaluate search results and reference materials
  • Organizing library materials so they are easier to find
  • Maintaining collections
  • Planning programs for different audiences, such as storytelling for young children and self-publishing for adults
  • Developing and using databases
  • Researching new books and materials
  • Choosing new books, audio books, and videos for the library
  • Researching and buying new computers and equipment
  • Training and directing library technicians, assistants, and support staff
  • Preparing and managing library budgets

Most librarians work full time and are either on the floor with library visitors, behind a circulation desk, or in an office. Some part-time employment opportunities are available. Working regular business hours is standard practice, but some positions require more than 40 hours a week. School librarians often have the same work schedules as teachers and can expect to have summers off. Those employed at public or academic libraries, on the other hand, frequently work weekends, evenings, and some holidays.

Skills to Acquire

If you plan to become a librarian in public, academic, or business setting, it is important to realize that the field can be demanding. To ensure success, you should begin developing and honing certain key skills.

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Most librarians possess the following qualities:

  • Communication skills necessary to explain ideas and information in ways that library visitors can understand
  • Interpersonal skills necessary to work both as part of a team, with the public, or with researchers
  • Problem-solving skills necessary to conduct and assist with research
  • Initiative necessary to continually update knowledge as information, technology, and resources change
  • Reading skills necessary to remain familiar with the latest literature
  • Technology skills necessary to help visitors research various topics using computers, archives, and databases

Alternative Paths

The process for becoming a librarian is relatively straight forward. Because all of these professionals are expected to have a MLS or related graduate-level degree from an ALA-accredited institution, there is not much opportunity for variation. While associate degrees in library science are available, these often limit employment opportunities to that of a library technician and result in much lower paying jobs.

There may be an alternative to current teachers interested in adding a school library endorsement, however. If you are an educator, you might be able to complete a graduate certificate program in library studies instead of a graduate degree program. It is important to check with your state certification board before enrolling, as not all states permit this. Additionally, it is worth noting that a graduate degree will make you more competitive. If there are limited position openings, employers are likely to give preference to individuals with a more extensive education in the field.

Librarian Career & Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual wage for librarians in 2017 was $58,520. PayScale reports an average salary of $49,277 for librarians. Both of these figures are well above the median annual wage of $37,690 reported for all occupations. Entry-level professionals can expect to make around $42,000 annually, while those with 20 or more years of experience can earn closer to $58,000 a year. Salary is also impacted by location; the top paying states for this occupation include the District of Columbia, California, Maryland, Alaska, and Virginia.

Where Might You Work?


While the vast majority of librarians work in academic settings, there are some government and private employment opportunities available. In fact, professionals in this field can find themselves working in quite a few unique settings, such as museums, law firms, non-profit organizations, or healthcare providers.

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That said, the industries that hire these professionals most often are:

  • Elementary and Secondary Schools
  • Local Government
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professionals Schools
  • Junior Colleges
  • Information Services
  • Legal Services
  • Federal Executive Branch
  • Computer System Design Services
  • Securities, Commodity Contracts, and Financial Investments Services
  • Scientific Research and Development Services

It is important to realize that most librarians work for elementary and secondary schools at the private, local, and state levels. Jobs in these industries are available, but tend to fill quickly. The industries that pay the most, however, include the Federal Executive Branch, computer system design services, and legal services.

Potential Career Paths

There are a wide variety of employment opportunities available to individuals with a library science degree. In fact, there are many different types of librarians. The fact that many industries have great use for information specialists means that you will be able to choose from an assortment of career paths.

User Services Librarians
User services help library visitors conduct research using both electronic and print resources. These professionals also often teach others how to utilize various resources so they can successfully conduct research on their own in the future. It is not uncommon for user services librarians to specialize in working with a particular audience, such as children, teens, or adults.

Technical Services Librarians
Technical services librarians are responsible for obtaining, preparing, and organizing print and electronic library materials. They maintain and improve upon the arrangement of materials to make them easy to find. These professionals are often the ones ordering new library materials, as well as preserving older items.

Administrative Services Librarians
Administrative services librarians are usually in charge of managing libraries. These professionals often hire and supervise staff, prepare budgets, and negotiate contracts for library materials and equipment. In some cases, administrative services librarians also conduct public relations and/or fundraising initiatives for the library.

Academic Librarians
Academic librarians often assist students, faculty, and staff at postsecondary colleges and universities. These professionals help students research topics for classes and frequently teach students how to access necessary information for projects. They also assist faculty and staff in locating resources for research projects and personal studies.

Public Librarians
Public librarians work in communities and serve the public. These professionals help library visitors find books, conduct research, and learn how to access resources. They play an integral role in planning programs for the community, such as storytelling for children, books clubs, and various other educational activities.

School Librarians
School librarians, also referred to as school media specialists, work in elementary, middle, and high school libraries. These professionals are often available to teach students how to use library resources. They may also assist teachers in the development of lesson plans, as well as help them find materials for classroom instruction.

Special Librarians
Special librarians do not work in either school or public libraries. Instead, these professionals are employed in other industries that benefit from having their own libraries. They serve the unique information needs of the organization they work for. In most cases, this means collecting and organizing materials focused on relevant subjects.

Corporate Liberians
Corporate librarians help employees in private businesses conduct research and find important information. These professionals may work in a variety of different businesses. Some of the most common employers include insurance companies, consulting firms, and publishers.

Government Librarians
Government librarians are responsible for providing research services to government staff, as well as the general public. These professionals are also in charge of permitting or denying access to certain types of sensitive information.

Law Librarians
Law librarians assist lawyers, law students, judges, and law clerks locate and organize important legal resources. These professionals often work in libraries owned or managed by either a law firm or a law school.

Medical Librarians
Medical librarians, often referred to as health science librarians, assist health professionals, patients, and researchers in locating important health and science information. These professionals can provide information about new clinical trials and medical treatments and procedures. They also teach medical students how to utilize information resources.

Librarian Careers Salaries

Occupations Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Librarian $43,000 $52,000 $61,000
Library Assistant $21,000 $32,000 $46,000
Library Director $56,000 $58,000 $76,000
Reference Librarian $45,000 $50,000 $59,000
Library Clerk $17,000 $28,000 $45,000
Library Technician $24,000 $37,000 $51,000
School Librarian $34,000 $51,000 $59,000
School Library Media Specialist $44,000 $44,000 $65,000
Librarian, Special Library $49,000 $59,000 $81,000
Law Librarian $54,000 $61,000 $78,000
Medical Librarian $51,000 $59,000 $67,000
Academic Librarian $49,000 $52,000 $66,000
Librarian / Cataloger $32,000 $43,000 $59,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

Overall, the outlook for librarians is quite promising. In fact, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that there will be a nine percent increase in job availability between 2016 and 2026. This is about as fast as the national average for other professions.

The main reason for this growth is that communities are turning to libraries more and more for a variety of services and activities. Additionally, parents place a high value on the learning opportunities that libraries offer for their children, especially when it comes to information that cannot be accessed at home. As a result, the demand for qualified librarians capable of managing libraries and assisting visitors in information collection will continue to rise. The addition of more and more electronic information also calls for an increase in the number of librarians available to help visitors sort through and find the information they are looking for.

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Employment opportunities and numbers vary significantly per state. The locations with the highest rates of employment for librarians include, but are not limited to, New York, Texas, California, Illinois, and Florida.

It is important to note that budget limitations may limit the growth of both libraries and librarians. This is especially true for local government and educational services.

Advancing From Here

Librarians interested in advancing their career often work toward becoming administrative service librarians. These positions are more administrative in nature and those within them have more responsibilities. They are often in charge of managing the entire facility and supervising the other workers there. Candidates for these positions often have a graduate degree and several years of work experience.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does a librarian do?

Academic librarians assist students by providing suggestions, checking out reading materials, and organizing youth programs. They may also manage the library budget, lead a team of librarian assistants, catalog new inventory, and update the databases.

What skills are needed for a librarian?

Librarians need to have computer literacy, analytical skills, and interest in research. They need to have good interpersonal skills, communication, analytical skills, organizational skills, and creativity.

What education do you need to become a librarian?

Most librarian jobs require a master's degree. Some jobs are available with a bachelor's degree but the majority of high paying positions will require a master's degree.

What is a typical librarian's work schedule?

Most full- time librarians work around 40 hours a week. Academic and public librarians might work nights, weekends, and holidays. School librarians typically have the same hours as teachers.

What is the job outlook for librarians?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected growth rate for librarians from 2020 to 2030 is 9%.

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