Skip to content

What makes one a librarian?

a 2/3 high shelf full of books
Besides style guides, who even knows? Why are you not shelved by call number with the rest of the reference collection, stupid books?

While I’m not the first to tackle librarianship and identity, by a [very very] long shot, it’s on my mind right now. Earlier this week I was told to train a new part-time reference librarian (<grumpy>with not a lot of warning</grumpy>). Training someone to do reference in this library is something that I am unequivocally and without a doubt the wrong person to do. My own desk training was kind of lackadaisical, and I am still learning the basics, two years later. (What? We’re supposed to sign the reference emails, even though there’s an auto-sig? Well, huh.) Case in point: I have a hell of a time finding the things that someone decided to hide on shelves behind the desk for the sake of “convenience” or “easy access” or something, but which really just serve the purpose of making those of us who aren’t long-time many-hour-per-week refsters feel underprepared and frustrated when they come up in catalog searches. (I guess bad internal UX also bothers me.)

And here’s the thing: remember how I was feeling all bad, in a previous post, about not being a Grade A Amazing Coder of Awesomeness? Well, there are those in the profession who seem to believe that, if I’m not a Grade A Amazing Reference Librarian of Awesomeness, I should not only feel bad, but I should consider throwing away my librarian hat. There are those who think—and have actually said—that reference and instruction are the most important library skills, and anyone who isn’t doing those things isn’t really a librarian.

a half-high shelf full of books
There are this many books again on the far side, that I can’t see. And BTW, we subscribe to Ulrich’s online, so …?

I don’t agree. I’ve been following some discussions around essential skills for librarians, including, obviously, Matt Enis’s post about all librarians needing to learn to code. (Spoiler: I like his reasoning but ultimately disagree.) It was with great amusement that I read and ultimately agreed with Roy Tennant’s [unrelated] post Why You Should Not Learn HTML. And, as usual, ALA Think Tank has a relevant thread, about librarian identity, also (again, as usual) both amusing and disheartening by turns.

And then I hit this post, by Lane Wilkinson (who I swear I’m not linking just because of the cute bird in his “About Me” photo… though now I really want to meet him and buy him a beer at conference sometime and talk about libraries and cute birds, maybe not in that order). In it, he responds to Matt Enis’s post and another post I won’t link, because it’s totally dismissive. And while I was reading Lane’s post (can I call him Lane if I haven’t met him?), I had a total “baskets!” moment. Maybe not the specific moment he was going for in the post, but a moment nonetheless. Here, let me show you (emphasis mine):

What these arguments show is not that all librarians need to code, but that all libraries need coders. Same goes for most of the skills we encounter in librarianship: there is no universal set of skills that are strongly essential in librarianship, but there are skills that are strongly essential for libraries. And it’s probably worth pointing out that maintaining systems and creating forward-thinking digital tools are not the only things libraries do. Libraries might also need readers’ advisory skills, instruction skills, reference skills, archiving skills, collection development skills, and so on. And all of these skills are only weakly essential insofar as a library only needs some librarians to master them, so long as the rest of the librarians meet some threshold understanding. Basically, there are a lot of great skills out there, and it would be great to learn them all, but we’ve got to prioritize.

Right?!?!? We should all buy this man a beer. Seriously.

I’ve never liked the “every Marine a rifleman” philosophy of librarianship, the idea that we all have to know the same things and do the same things. Especially in a library with, just to throw out a hypothetical number, 20+ tenure-track librarians, it’s good and important that we specialize. It helps the library grow. If we all do reference and all do collection development and all do instruction, then a bunch of the library’s other functions are not covered sufficiently. And, worse, you have people who just aren’t that good at some aspect(s) of their jobs. To use my ineptitude as an example yet again, someone who comes to the desk during my night shift will be treated really well, because I think customer service is important and because I have learned good reference behavior in other jobs; however, they won’t have access to a particularly deep well of knowledge about our reference collection and how to use all of the resources we have available to us. (I’m a maven in Google, Summon, and IEEE Explore. But CINAHL and our microfiche collection, just to name two things, make me cry.)

If you have sufficient staff to cover multiple areas, then prioritization and specialization are key. Just as you can’t expect every librarian to code (and I truly believe you can’t), you can’t expect every librarian to do whatever other thing you think is The Most Important Library Skill. There is no Most Important Library Skill. Lane said it better than I can: “Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill. And the next time someone says that ‘all librarians must have skill X’, ask if they really mean ‘all libraries need someone with skill X.’ I bet you’ll find they actually mean the latter.”

I will say that I think all librarians need to be comfortable with technology, because technology flows through everything the library does, nowadays. All librarians need to [generally] be happy, calm, and collected while using an internet-connected computer with office software on it; ideally, their tech skills should go further, but I think that’s a fair minimum. On the other hand, I don’t think all librarians have to know how to write “real” websites (as opposed to WYSIWYG things like blogs or LibGuides, which almost all of us do need to be able to write) or to build a PC from parts. A librarian does not have to use Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or [insert whatever thing is popular among patrons and other librarians] to be a librarian, but really should have at least a vague idea of what it is and how other people use it. I think that’s fair.

And I think we have a common creed, more or less, though there are variations on it and reasonable arguments we could have about it. I think it’s reasonable to say a librarian has to believe in intellectual freedom, to be a good librarian—though we might all draw our lines in different places. I think it’s probably OK to say that librarians should believe reading, or at least literacy of some sort, is important. There are a number of attitudes that might well be required to be a successful librarian. But there aren’t very many skills that each and every one of us need to have.

I kind of suck at reference, if we’re going to be brutally honest; my only saving graces are that 1) I’m very nice, and 2) we get like a million technology questions, which I totally rock. And, I mean, I get better over time. But here I am, admitting that I’m not that good at reference, and I am nonetheless a really good librarian. And from now on I’m not going to let anyone tell me different.

Published inliaisonlibrarianshipsocial justiceteaching and learningtechnology


  1. Hey-o, thanks for the link. I particularly like the “every Marine a rifleman” analogy, which I kind of want to go back in insert into the post. As for the post you won’t link to, I do want to point out that Wayne isn’t necessarily dismissive of code, he’s dismissive of tech gurus who say that everyone needs to learn to code. His POV is actually very similar to mine and yours.

    And IYI the bird photo is from the Cincinnati Zoo. The lorikeet exhibit alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, that’s about all I know about birds. :-(

    • OK, that’s fair. I probably should have linked to him, too. Something about his post made me cranky, is all.

      I love lorikeets! They’re screechy-sounding but so pretty and so easy to lure into being friendly with nectar.

      I’ll still buy you a beer if we’re ever at the same conference, just for writing a really good blog post that made me feel better about things. :)

  2. By the same token that any Doctor *could* deliver a baby if you’re stuck in traffic, you would normally prefer an Obstetrician. Librarians come in lots of *specialties* too. If all you want is *Primary Care* Librarians, then you better make that known from the beginning.

    I’m a Systems Librarian! Yes, my classes included instruction on how to conduct a reference interview. I was also taught a hundred other skills that I haven’t exercised in a decade.

    If I wanted to do reference, I would have accepted a job that had me doing that. As it is, don’t ask me to do a puppet show for your toddlers and I won’t ask you to fix my PC.

  3. Great post and great points. If I wanted everyone on my departmental team to have the same skills, we wouldn’t get anywhere on behalf of our community. The point of “libraries” having a range of skills available rather than “librarians” is key!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *