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National Library Week: Librarianship as an Occupation and Profession

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This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Woman standing in front of shelves of books, reading a book.
Mrs. Joan Fertig, Hungarian-born librarian at the Westinghouse plant.1943. Photo: Marjory Collins, photographer. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

I have been teleworking since last March, due to the pandemic, and as I reflect on librarianship as a profession during National Library Week (April 4 – 10, 2021), I consider how we as librarians have tried to serve our greater community and how this has challenged and enhanced our outreach initiatives and skills. The field of library and information science is filled with professionals passionate about making a positive impact, and dedicating themselves to continuous learning. As the amount of information available to end users has soared and new technologies have become available, the position of the librarian has changed. Today, there are many paths that individuals can take to explore a passion for library and information science.

In order to work as a librarian, you often need a Master’s Degree from an American Library Association accredited program of study, and depending on your selected career path, you may need additional education, training or certification. The study of librarianship is akin to a “choose your own adventure” book, since there are many paths that you may explore in pursuing your interests. A career trajectory in librarianship could include: working with children and youth in schools or other settings, working in archives or special collections; providing bibliographic access to objects through cataloging; serving in a role interpreting a cultural heritage institution or museum, making digital collections accessible, acquiring electronic resources, developing web content, creating social media posts, and more!

Photograph showing a librarian telling an Ojibwa legend to a roomful of children at the Queens Borough Public Library.
Jewish children listening to A Legend of the Northern Lights (N. American Indian) / Beals, N.Y. 1910. Photo: Jessie Tarbox Beals, photographer. Warren Coville Collection of Iconic Photojournalism Images. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When I look for occupational information, The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Handbook is my go-to resource. Another great government resource is the O*NET program, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, which is a primary source of occupational information. Their summary report on Librarians and Media Collections Specialists provides information on typical tasks performed by librarians, the knowledge and skills involved, as well as the educational requirements. In addition, the site provides information on what librarians do, their work environments, as well as compensation and job outlook details with breakdowns of collections and opportunities by state. According to this information, about a third of librarians work in elementary and secondary schools, about a third work for local governments, seventeen percent work in colleges or universities, and the remaining work in a variety of other situations or in special libraries. The Department of Labor publishes Occupational Employment Statistics that graphically illustrate the wages, industry, and distribution of librarians and collections by state.

Image of a library, taken from above, looking down at students studying at tables. The outside of room has shelves of books.
Portrait of America. No. 106. Vassar – A famous American college for women. 7 – The Easy-To-Use Library. ca. 1944. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.
Three men dressed in suits talking. Two are standing, one is sitting.
Charles Benjamin Norton, publisher and bookseller; Seth Hastings Grant, librarian at the New York Mercantile Library; and Daniel Coit Gilman, assistant librarian at Yale at the first annual meeting of American librarians, September 1853 in New York City. September 1853. Photo: Mathew B. Brady, photographer. Daguerreotype collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In searching for occupation information, it is also worth looking at the demographics of a field. Initially, library science was male-dominated and white. This has changed dramatically, as women represented 71 percent of graduates in Master of Library Science (MLS) programs in 2017-2018. However, the racial profile has changed very little, with 83 percent of librarians being white as of 2019. Professional associations and workplaces have acknowledged that the field suffers from a lack of racial and ethnic diversity. The American Library Association, The Special Library Association, and other professional groups have come to recognize the importance of diversifying our profession and our collections. We need a wide variety of Americans to collect and tell the stories of our country, so that all voices are represented and heard. There is wide agreement within the field that the key to diversifying the profession involves attracting a wider range of individuals to study library and information science and have early career exposure to internships and fellowships.

Learn More:

  • Explore internships and fellowships to discover the types of work and environments you may find fulfilling. Consider exploring opportunities at the Library of Congress’ Internships and Fellowships overview page and our listings of available Internships and Fellowships available to students in a variety of fields of study.
  • Review the Library of Congress library guide on Librarians and Archivists. This guide provides information on the types of library positions, controlled vocabularies, library standards, archival description, our products and services, as well as links to jobs and internships.
  • Bookmark our Research and Reference Services page. This page provides up-to-date information on our programs, collections, and on-site services.
  • If you have a question, please submit an Ask-A-Librarian question or visit us during our chat hours.

Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

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