What is a Librarian?

6715086421_239f874bd6I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a librarian.  I think it has to do with my own career detours as well as the recent conversations about whether or not the American Association of Law Libraries should change its name.  But also, as I have often been the only librarian in a room full of lawyers/technologists/etc., I have had to learn to give a quick elevator pitch of what it is librarians do/why we’re relevant/etc.

In my process of figuring this out, I decided to consult good old Ranganathan and his five laws, but found them lacking.   I’m not having a mental block caused by the use of the term “books” instead of “information” or “knowledge” – that’s fixed by a simple find and replace.  (Of course, that didn’t stop me from writing a couple hundred words on the differences between them.)   Rather, I’m now bothered by the fact that the laws apply more to the institutions of libraries than the actions of librarians.  If librarians are working more and more out of traditional library spaces, shouldn’t there be some guidance about what librarians do regardless of their work-spaces?  I also think if we thought more about actions, rather than titles, we’d find more people are in our librarian tent than maybe we previously thought.

Anyway, after thinking about it, I’ve gotten my “law of librarians” down to one:  “Librarians provide access to data, information and knowledge.”

Of course, “provide access” is a phrase that requires a bit of unpacking.  So how do librarians provide access?   Well, I have a list.

  • Preservation – Much like the aliens in Slaughterhouse-Five, librarians don’t just view patrons in their modern, contemporaneous form.  They see patrons through time, including into the future.  So they make decisions about how to preserve information  – digitally, in print, in whatever form they deem best – so that future patrons will be able to use it.
  • Organization – In the age of google and the one search box to rule them all, people seem to think that organizing information doesn’t exist anymore, that search results appear by magic.  Well, no.  It’s not magic.  And search isn’t always the best way of navigating through reams of information.  Fortunately librarians are there to bring order to chaos.
  • Connection – I was primarily thinking reference services, as that’s my background and putting people in touch with information sources is  what I mainly did there.  But after giving this some thought, this is also a function of the catalogers, systems librarians and anyone that makes interfaces that allow people to find information.
  • Curation – The age of information is great, but the web and all the other new sources of information are basically a giant crap heap.  While it’s tempted in the age of cheap data storage to save it all and let god sort it out, there exists a need to sort through it and make sure only the actual quality materials are finding their way to patrons.    To do otherwise is to do a great disservice.
  • Education – Again, perhaps my reference bias is showing, but I believe that an important way librarians provide access to information is by educating patrons on how to exist without the immediate, personal help of a librarian.  The “teach a man to fish”, thing.
  • Protection – Somewhat ironically for the age of information, events, governments and corporations are making it  harder and harder for patrons to have unfettered access to information.  Therefore it’s up to librarians to step up to the plate and protect the rights of the patron.  Whether it’s ensuring patron privacy via refusing unwarranted access to patron records or installing Tor nodes, or fighting against banning books, or working against contractual limits against ownership of information or myriad other things, librarians are the one profession who are able to be the barrier against these limits.
  • Creation – Finally, related to the above limits on access, it has come the time where librarians should not just collect the information created by others, but also actively work to create or transform information sources so that they are more usable – think format or organization as two primary ways this could work.

Am I missing ways in which librarians provide access to information?  Let me know in a comment or email.

Photo Credit: DaveCrosby via Compfight cc


  8 comments for “What is a Librarian?

  1. January 5, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Sarah, I would add to your paragraph on creation, that librarians publish original writing of others, e.g. by operating repositories and make that writing more accessible by adding metadata to it.

  2. Margie Maes
    January 6, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    This is a very good definition and list. Whether it’s an elevator conversation or a podium speech, all of us should be able to articulate these topics when asked. Thanks for the post, and thanks for including preservation (which is too often an afterthought).

  3. Wendy Reynolds
    January 6, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Love this. I suggest that connection can sometimes be between people. I cannot tell you how often I wind up helping Person X (with an information need) find Person Y because I know both of them through project work, mentoring or just friendship.

    I look forward to seeing how this conversation develops. Thank you for starting it.

  4. NwN
    January 7, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Sarah, I also would like to add a phrase on your “connection” paragraph. Librarians are the pathfinders for information that going through complex search strategies and make them an easy avenue for patron’s destination

  5. January 13, 2016 at 2:27 am

    Hi Sarah, I don’t think of our professional practice as a list of things because it’s determined by what our clients need & want from us & the possibilities of this are rapidly changing & expanding in the global & digital & increasingly multi-disciplinary context in which we operate. So, I explain my role as someone who supports clients in their knowledge building & knowledge sharing. That lets me be client-centred (whatever that means in different libraries) & encourages me to be open-minded about what my role & professional identity could & should entail. Sandra

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