What Library Science Is and How to Become a Librarian

Someone who enjoys sharing knowledge with others may like the idea of working in a library, since that is a place where visitors often seek answers to questions.

In those scenarios, librarians become sleuths, using their investigative skills to find whatever is sought after whether a particular fact or an amalgamation of all the credible scholarship on a specific topic.

There are also situations where librarians help people locate one-of-a-kind items such as authenticated historical manuscripts or genuine legal documents. Though it may not be possible to gain direct access to the original versions of rare objects, reliable copies are often available via digital archives. Librarians are skilled at discovering valuable resources in places where others might not think to look.

These information professionals often have a significant amount of authority, since they frequently choose which items are included and excluded within a particular library. Making that decision in an informed and thoughtful way requires encyclopedic knowledge about old and new publications.

Perceptiveness about people is helpful because librarians who understand the needs and wants of their patrons are more likely to provide helpful recommendations.

Why People Choose to Become Librarians

"Although the common perception is that people choose to become librarians because they love books, in reality what we see in our students -- who often do love books -- is the desire to become a librarian because of a passionate commitment to service, learning and community engagement," wrote Maria Bonn, an associate professor at University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign's School of Information Sciences.

[See: Best Library and Information Studies Programs.]

"Librarianship is both a service and a leadership profession, offering many opportunities to both assist the community and its members by meeting information needs and to shape and guide that community," adds Bonn, the program director of her school's Master of Science program in library and information science.

An inquisitive mindset is a beneficial character trait for a future librarian, since the mission of libraries is to encourage intellectual exploration.

"People who are innately curious about the world find this field deeply satisfying, as they spend their time helping others explore their questions and find answers," Brian W. Sturm, associate dean for academic affairs with the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, wrote in an email. "Students are also attracted to our field from a desire to preserve information for future generations."

Julie Peters, director of the James B. Carey Library in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations in New Jersey, says librarianship is a timeless and meaningful profession. "Libraries are not going anywhere," she wrote in an email. "There will always be a need to find, evaluate and organize information so that it can be accessed and used by others."

What Library Science Is and How to Study It

Library science is an academic discipline that is sometimes referred to as information studies. This field focuses on how to classify and use data or objects and emphasizes the importance of preserving knowledge and promoting literacy. Contrary to the myth that libraries are old-fashioned, the academic discipline surrounding the thoughtful management of libraries is not stodgy, explains Peters, who has a master's degree in the field.

"Library science is not about card catalogs and rows of dusty books," she explains. "It's a field that is constantly changing and evolving, as technology creates new strategies for sharing, managing and organizing information."

[Read: 6 Occupations That Typically Require a Master's Degree.]

Specializations within library science often concentrate on how to oversee particular types of libraries, such as legal libraries or public libraries, Peters says. However, regardless of what area of library science a student focuses on, he or she will typically study how humans behave when they seek information and which technologies can help people learn, she says.

Bonn notes that graduates of library science programs don't always wind up working in libraries, since they have skills that are valuable in a variety of industries ranging from publishing to music to technology. "They work for the Culinary Institute of America and National Public Radio," she notes. "The skills that support connecting users with information are in high demand in many settings."

Anind Dey, dean of the University of Washington Information School, explains that library and information schools differ from one another, so content that is emphasized in one school's curriculum might not be highlighted at a different academic institution. Courses at his school cover an array of subjects ranging from the future of libraries to misinformation.

Librarian Qualifications and Job Prospects

Most librarian positions require a master's degree in library science, though a bachelor's degree coupled with a teaching certification may be sufficient for some school library jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Master's programs in library science can usually be finished within two years and some can be finished within a single year.

Some library jobs require a degree from a library school that is accredited by the American Library Association, commonly known as the ALA.

[Read: Is Graduate School Worth the Cost?]

Laura Robinson, the university librarian at Clark University in Massachusetts, says an education in library science can lead to an enjoyable career path.

"Librarianship is a great place to help people, to support communities, and to be always learning and growing," Robinson, who has a master's in library and information science, wrote in an email. "It's a profession that changes all the time due to all the technology and knowledge that evolves so quickly. It is great for those who are flexible, creative, and endlessly curious. As a librarian for over 20 years my day-to-day work changes on a regular basis."

The BLS predicts that the number of librarians and library media specialists employed in 2029 will be 5% higher than it was in 2019, which is slightly above the average predicted job growth rate for all U.S. occupations within that time frame.

However, aspiring librarians should be aware that paychecks within the profession are generally modest. The median annual salary among U.S. librarians and media collections specialists in 2020 was $60,820, according to bureau statistics.

The ALA Allied Professional Association, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the professional interests of librarians and other library workers, supports initiatives to improve salaries in the profession. But because library positions generally aren't high-paying, prospective library science students should investigate all of their financial aid and scholarship options before applying for a degree in the field, experts say.

Another key fact to keep in mind is that academic libraries often provide higher compensation than public libraries, and library jobs in major metropolitan areas tend to pay better than positions in rural areas, according to the ALA.

Libraries targeted toward a particular group of people frequently pay higher salaries than libraries aimed at a general audience, according to library science faculty. "Corporate information officers at places like Google or Amazon often start at six-figure salaries, archivists and academic librarians may start around $70,000, and public librarians may start around $45,000," Sturm explains.

Libraries sometimes concentrate on a single topic such as art, law or theology, and they occasionally serve the needs of a particular institution such as a hospital, museum or prison. These types of libraries are called special libraries. Librarians who cater to a specific clientele may opt to join the Special Libraries Association, a nonprofit professional organization.

Robinson notes that compensation within library science depends a lot on the type of job someone has. "Many positions pay quite well," she notes, adding that university libraries tend to offer generous vacation and tuition remission benefits. "Librarians also enjoy much personal freedom in the workplace, to create projects, to dress as we wish, and to occasionally have flexible work schedules."

One perk of a career as a librarian is that the job often allows someone to complete a variety of assignments rather than sticking to a single routine and becoming bored by repetition.

"I have worked in archives and special collections, book repair and preservation, taught college students on efficient ways to find high quality information in fields ranging from engineering to English, and collaborated with faculty to build instruction programs and promote their faculty research beyond the 'ivory tower,'" Robinson says.

"There are so many exciting ways to be a librarian. The challenge is getting past the stereotype of the 'shusher' and realizing that this profession is so much more."

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