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What does a librarian do?
A librarian is sometimes also known as a learning resource manager, and the profession was once known as librarianship. Librarians work in public and private libraries and organise, manage and provide access to books and other information resources and materials, including printed and electronic resources.
Librarians can specialise in various libraries, such as public, school, college, university, prison, academic, legal, healthcare, etc. They can also specialise in specific resources, such as music, digital systems, children, archives, etc. Therefore, what a librarian does will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
A librarian’s main aim is to ensure the library they work in runs smoothly and to promote literacy and reading. They also have an essential role in helping library service users to access and use information resources that most suit their needs (e.g. education, work or pleasure) and engaging them in library activities.
Librarians will carry out many tasks, including legal compliance, recruiting, training and managing staff, working with stock, dealing with service users’ enquiries, issuing books and managing returns, managing budgets, providing advice and information, arranging IT access, promoting library services, keeping up to date with new publications and technology, attending meetings, conferences and events, etc. Some of a librarian’s tasks will include administrative and computer work.
Who librarians work with will depend on their type of workplace. For example, in a public library, they can work with head/senior librarians, assistant librarians, library technicians, IT staff and other colleagues. They can also liaise with various external stakeholders (depending on where they work), such as library service users and their families and friends, suppliers, delivery companies, museums, educational services, contractors, etc.
Librarians can work for various-sized companies, from local authorities and universities to small schools, mobile libraries and museums. Most will work in permanent, full-time jobs, but there are part-time and job-share opportunities also available. There are also temporary and contract jobs available.
A librarian’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including where they work, their employer, their role and their specialisms.
Some examples of their day-to-day duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Ensuring compliance with relevant laws, e.g. data protection, copyright and freedom of information.
- Dealing with and answering service user enquiries over the counter or via phone or email.
- Issuing books and managing returns.
- Ensuring they meet the needs of service users.
- Selecting, ordering, categorising, cataloguing and indexing stock, materials and resources using library systems and other computer programs.
- Organising stock to make it easier for service users to access.
- Replacing lost, stolen or damaged stock.
- Identify the stock and resources that require disposal, selling or donation.
- Arranging IT access for users and solving any issues they may have.
- Recruiting, training and managing staff.
- Managing budgets and resources.
- Providing advice, support and information to service users.
- Promoting library services by organising various events and groups, e.g. talks, displays, tours and reading clubs.
- Attending meetings, conferences and events.
- Developing IT systems for more efficient service delivery.
- Keeping up to date with new publications, trends and technology, and sector developments.
A librarian can expect to work 36-38 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their employer.
Many librarian jobs are Monday-Friday, but some individuals may have to work unsociable hours on shifts, e.g. evenings and weekends.
Most librarian roles are full-time and permanent, but there may be flexible jobs, such as part-time or job share. There may also be temporary or contract jobs for those with more experience.
Travel may be a requirement for librarians if they work between sites, from a mobile library or drive to community events. Overseas opportunities are rare.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a librarian, especially if individuals have a passion for books, reading and learning. It would suit those who enjoy connecting with people through the power of the written word and electronic information. Libraries also have a particular atmosphere and smell that can invoke happiness and contentment in some people.
Being a librarian is rewarding. They help people access information and resources, promote literacy and support their learning and development. Therefore, they can go home after the working day knowing their role makes a difference to people and communities.
The working environment for librarians is peaceful, as libraries are renowned for being quiet, calm and tranquil. It would be suitable for individuals who are not keen on noisy workplaces. There may be the odd rowdy service user, but as a librarian, individuals can reiterate the need for low noise levels.
There are opportunities to work in various library settings in towns and cities across the UK. Some librarian roles, such as mobile ones, enable individuals to travel to different areas, including rural areas. There are many options for individuals looking at this as a career. The salary can also be competitive, especially for more experienced librarians and those working in specific fields, such as healthcare or legal.
If an individual is looking for a job that has a decent work-life balance and shorter working hours, this may be suitable. Librarians typically work Monday-Friday and less than 38 hours a week. There are also many part-time positions available.
Boredom is unlikely to be a problem for librarians. Their roles will be busy and varied with lots of general enquiries. One day, they could help find a specific book for a service user and, the next, assist someone in accessing information online. They will also deal with people from all walks of life, which can be interesting.
Even though there are positives to being a librarian, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- A lack of job opportunities – unfortunately, librarian roles appear to be decreasing. There have been many library closures and fewer opportunities than in the past, especially locally. Individuals in rural areas or smaller towns may need to commute longer distances or relocate to find jobs. Competition for roles can be fierce.
- Poor job security – some librarian jobs, especially public ones, rely on funding. Therefore, if there are financial cutbacks, it can mean library closures, job losses or relocations. Library staff numbers are also reducing due to increasing electronic systems and resources. Overall, the demand for librarians seems to be declining.
- Quiet environment – although some individuals may enjoy quiet working environments, it is not for everyone. Librarians will interact with service users and colleagues. However, it can be limited in some roles. Being in a quiet environment all day and having little interaction can be lonely, but it can be a good fit for introverts.
- They need qualifications/experience – most librarians have a degree. Therefore, those looking at entering the role must be willing to undertake further education to increase their chances of success. Some employers may accept individuals with relevant work experience, i.e. working in a library in their chosen setting.
- Mental demands – being a librarian can often be mentally demanding. In some settings, such as large public libraries, they may have numerous enquiries from service users and people wanting to check books out, which can be stressful. Also, as the job usually involves working with the general public, librarians may have to deal with challenging people, some of whom may be verbally or physically abusive.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is for them. There is a lack of job opportunities, job security is poor, it is mentally demanding, and some may not like a quiet working environment. However, there are many positives too, and those who become librarians love working with books all day and helping people and communities access the numerous resources in a library.
When considering whether to be a librarian and the type of role, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a librarian
Some of the personal qualities a librarian requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for learning, books, reading and literature.
- A passion for knowledge and making it accessible to people.
- A meticulous approach to work.
- Knowledge of the English language.
- Knowledge of digital applications.
- Self-motivated, positive, confident, approachable and friendly.
- Sensitive and understanding.
- Logical, efficient and orderly.
- Numeracy and literacy skills.
- Customer service skills.
- Administrative skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Research skills.
- Investigative skills.
- Social media skills.
- Communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Time management and organisational skills.
- Management skills.
- Presentation skills.
- IT skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- The ability to be flexible and open to change.
- The ability to interact and build relationships with people from all walks of life.
- The ability to prioritise their work and meet deadlines.
- The ability to delegate to others.
- The ability to make decisions.
- The ability to work well with others in a team and alone using their own initiative.
- The ability to work well under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use a computer and relevant software packages proficiently.
Qualifications and training
There are many different routes to becoming a librarian. Individuals could go to university, apply for a graduate training scheme or apply directly. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
Individuals will typically need a librarianship or information management degree to become librarians. They can undertake an undergraduate/postgraduate degree to help them enter the role. They can also choose other degrees such as information science/management, computer science, software engineering, etc.
As competition for jobs is fierce, it is better if individuals choose courses accredited by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).
The entry requirements and the number of UCAS points needed will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.
They will typically require the following:
- 2 or 3 good A Levels for an undergraduate degree.
- 2:1 or 2:2 relevant undergraduate degree subject for a postgraduate degree.
Some institutions may also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
A degree is usually required to become a librarian. However, individuals could undertake a librarian online or in-class training course to help them gain knowledge and work towards their goals.
The entry requirements will depend on the course provider and level. Always check the entry requirements before applying.
Courses and qualifications do not guarantee a place on accredited programmes or as a role as a librarian. However, it will demonstrate to employers and companies that an individual is keen on the career and may give them a competitive edge.
Graduate training schemes
If an individual has a degree in another subject, they may be eligible to join a graduate training scheme provided by an employer and supported by CILIP.
Further information is here.
Individuals with relevant experience could apply directly for jobs as library assistants/information service data officers. They could then study for further qualifications, train on the job and apply for CILIP certification.
Vacancies are on many job sites.
Relevant work experience, either paid or voluntary, can help individuals stand out and build their knowledge and skills.
To gain experience, individuals could (this list is not exhaustive):
- Apply for a role working with books, e.g. bookshops.
- Work as a casual library assistant or in archives.
- Shadow experienced librarians to find out more about the job.
- Work or volunteer in a role to gain transferable skills, e.g. customer service, research, IT and digital.
- Work or volunteer in a setting of interest, e.g. school, university, prison, legal or medical.
- Volunteer in a local library or at events.
Training and experience may be necessary for some jobs and volunteer opportunities.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide relevant training courses.
We have many examples of approved courses that may be useful for individuals looking at a career as a librarian, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Health and safety, e.g. work at height, manual handling, fire safety, etc.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Workplace first aid.
- Equality and diversity.
- LGBTQ+ awareness.
- Understanding GDPR.
- Customer service skills.
- Complaints handling.
- Team leading Level 2.
- Time management skills.
- Resilience training.
Professional bodies and associations, such as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), the School Library Association (SLA), the Independent Libraries Association (ILA), Libraries Connected, the Business Librarians Association (BLALIB), the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL), and other organisations, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become librarians and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed, especially for specialist roles. Jobs are on websites such as GOV.UK Find a Job Service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, LG Jobs, Information Professional Jobs, LocalGov Jobs, British Library Careers, Library Jobs at jobs.ac.uk, SLA Jobs, NHS Health Careers and many other sites. Also, look at recruitment agencies for temporary and contract roles and individual company websites.
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities for individuals. Refresher training is also advisable as it keeps their knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Librarians must undergo a criminal record check, as they will have contact with children. A criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, an employer should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Individuals may want to consider professional registration and membership with the CILIP to stand out and increase their chances of success, particularly for senior roles.
There are fees for registration, and individuals must revalidate annually by completing 20 hours of CPD and fulfilling other criteria.
Further information on professional membership is here.
Some librarians will drive as part of their role, e.g. if they work between sites, attend events or drive a mobile library. Therefore, they may need a full, clean driving licence.
Where do librarians work?
Librarians can work for various employers, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Local authorities, e.g. councils.
- Government agencies.
- Non-departmental public bodies.
- The Civil Service.
- The NHS/private healthcare providers.
- Universities, colleges and schools.
- Law firms.
- Research institutes.
- Private companies/businesses.
- Charities and not-for-profit organisations.
They can work in various types of libraries, such as:
- School libraries.
- Sixth-form centre libraries.
- College libraries.
- University libraries.
- Public libraries.
- Community libraries.
- Research/academic libraries.
- Prison libraries.
- Mobile libraries.
- Hospital libraries.
- Legal libraries.
- Museum libraries.
- Music libraries.
- Business/corporate libraries.
- Private collection libraries.
All libraries will vary regarding building type and age, facilities and equipment. Librarians may work in offices, technology suites, meeting/conference rooms, at service desks, and between book shelving. They may also spend time outdoors at events.
Most libraries are in large towns and cities. However, there may be some libraries in small towns and villages, and mobile ones may travel to rural areas.
How much do librarians earn?
A librarian’s salary will depend on where they work and their role, qualifications, experience, geographical location, employer, working hours, contract and specialist area.
Some examples of average annual earnings include the following (these figures are only a guide):
- £18,500 starter to £32,000 experienced (National Careers Service).
- £22,982 (Payscale).
- £26,120 (Indeed UK).
- £29,621 (Talent.com).
- £29,947.93 (Check-a-Salary).
- £31,517 (Glassdoor).
The CILIP has a Salary Guide on their website.
Types of librarian to specialise in
There are many librarian roles in which individuals can specialise. Some examples include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Academic librarians – may also be known as research librarians. They ensure that academic information is available to students, lecturers, researchers, faculties and other staff in universities and further education colleges. The CILIP has information on this area here.
- Children’s librarians – provide library services, information and activities to children and young people. They can work in various settings, such as children’s libraries, schools or in children’s sections in large libraries.
- Healthcare librarians – work in a library in a healthcare environment, such as an NHS or private hospital, or community, mental health or public health setting. They ensure essential information is accessible when and where staff must use it. The CILIP and the NHS have further information on these types of librarians on their web pages.
- Legal librarians – may also be known as legal librarians or legal information professionals. They can work in law firms, academic institutions, legal professional libraries and other settings. Individuals typically have qualifications and training in law for this role. The British and Irish Association of Law Librarians has further information on their website about what the position entails and the qualifications required.
- Prison librarians – work in a library in a prison environment. They will manage the day-to-day running of a prison library and organise, manage and provide access to information to prisoners. They must promote library services to prisoners and support them non-judgementally. See Prison Librarians – CILIP for additional information on this job.
- Public librarians – work in public libraries often run by local authorities. They will deal with service users of all ages in the community, from children to adults. Further information on what a public librarian does is here.
- School librarians – work in libraries in various types of state and independent schools. They will manage the day-to-day running of school libraries and make resources accessible to pupils, teachers, other staff and the wider school community. Some jobs may be term-time only. Skills for Schools has further information about this specific role here.
- Subject librarians – specialise in specific subjects, mainly in large academic and research libraries and special collections. They provide specialist support to students, researchers and other service users. See Subject Librarians – CILIP for further information.
All specialist librarian roles require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All librarians must have a passion for books, reading and literacy and have exceptional customer service and interpersonal skills. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for and a librarian’s intended specialist areas. Further qualifications and training may be necessary for specialised roles. See CILIP for additional information.
Librarians not correctly carrying out their roles can result in damaged or missing information resources, which can be costly. Cataloguing errors can affect library systems. Library users may also be unhappy with the service; they may complain if they are unable to find the information resources they need, leading to a poor reputation and a loss of people using the library. In particular settings, such as legal and healthcare, incompetence can have serious consequences. Therefore, whatever the type of role, librarians must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and correctly. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Resources, books, materials, equipment, technology, systems and trends are regularly changing. Therefore, librarians must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives librarians the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers.
Joining a professional body or association (as previously mentioned) can help prospective and current librarians enhance their skills and overall career. These may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is an opportunity for career progression for librarians. With more training and experience, they could move to a senior position, such as a library manager or head of library services. They could go from working in a public library to specialising in a specific setting, such as legal or healthcare. Alternatively, they could specialise in managing specialist collections or services.
Knowledge, skills and experience gained from working as a librarian can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could work in customer service, events, training or research.
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