What does a librarian actually do all day?

It is quite clear that librarianship is one of the most misunderstood professions out there.  People really have no idea what librarians spend their time doing, why they might want to do it or even what the point of librarians is.  Our image has been improved in recent decades thanks to characters such as the Discworld’s Librarian and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Rupert Giles, but still the overriding image is of a severe-looking lady with her hair in a bun, grumpily stamping books and telling people to be quiet.  Not always accurate – if nothing else, I’m no lady!

Librarians, like other professionals, come in many shapes and forms – reference librarians, subject librarians, managers, cataloguers or systems specialists, school librarians, law librarians and a whole host of other varieties.  The roles of each are very different, but we share one common feature – the point of librarians is to help people find information.  Whether we organise it, retrieve it, maintain the systems which enable access to it or teach people how to use it, information is our domain.  And in this modern world, information is surely becoming the world’s most wanted commodity.  I have said it before, and will no doubt say it again – a librarian may not know all the answers, but we sure as heck know how to find the answers!

My own particular specialism is cataloguing, but that isn’t all I do.  My more general tasks include those activities popularly associated with library-kind – putting books in order on the shelves, issuing books to people, collecting fines for items returned late and sometimes, just sometimes, asking people to be quiet if they’re making noise in the library’s relatively small Quiet Zone.  I also take new students on tours of the building, assist with information skills teaching sessions, help maintain the library’s web presence and train new members of staff.  Some of my favourite activities are those which involve teaching students, whether it’s showing them how to use the library catalogue or developing their understanding of internet search techniques.  Whenever possible, I like to help students find out the answers for themselves rather than deliver answers to them on a plate.  It can be a frustrating process, but the rewards are great – teaching a new skill is a deeply rewarding process.

Anyway, back to cataloguing.  At the library I work for, I am in charge of cataloguing, but what exactly is that?  It is, in many ways, the geekiest, nerdiest branch of librarianship there is (which is really saying something!), requiring concentration, precision and attention to detail.  Cataloguing is the art of description – describing what something is and what it is about.  Every item which is to become part of our library’s diverse stock, which includes CDs, DVDs and a whole range of educational resources as well as books and journals, has to be catalogued when it arrives.  For each type of item, a whole range of different pieces of information need to be recorded.  Sometimes this is fairly obvious and easy to establish (I rarely have trouble identifying how many pages a book has or what the running time of a DVD is), but some items require considerable research to get right.  And not only does the information have to be accurate in order to be of any use to the library’s borrowers, it has to be entered in ways which correspond to international standards.  A semi-colon in the wrong place or a missing full stop can cause untold havoc in the cataloguing world!

I spend more time than is probably healthy poring over subject authority files in order to establish that a book is not officially about ‘Philately’, but rather ‘Stamp collecting’, or that The Brothers Karamazov is by ‘Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881’.  Dostoyevsky, that is.  Not Dostoievski, Dostoevsky or any of the other many forms his name has taken when anglicised over the years.  These files, maintained by the Library of Congress, are an absolute boon, ensuring consistency not only within the records of an individual library, but between libraries separated by oceans and ideologies.  Sometimes they make me want to scream, most notably when cataloguing items concerning the Jewish scriptures.  Sometimes, they make me very happy indeed, such as when cataloguing a chamber pot (which gets used [I hope not literally] by student teachers in history lessons) – I was more delighted than I possibly should have been when I discovered that ‘Chamber pots’ was an official Library of Congress Subject Heading.

The better-described an item is, the more likely is will be that it can be retrieved by a library user through a catalogue search.  Due to the varied nature of assignments, they may search by title, author, subject, director (of films) or even, for some intriguing music projects, the conductor of recorded music.  They need to know what form an item takes, what it is about, how up-to-date it is and what relevance it has to them.  All of these questions can be answered through accurate cataloguing, which also helps library staff know exactly what we have on the shelves.

Classification is another string to my bow, one that is closely related to cataloguing.  Cataloguing is concerned with description, but classification is the art of organisation, of ontology in practice.  Using the beauty that is the Dewey Decimal System, we decide where in the library an item should be shelved, hopefully in such a way that it sits alongside items which deal with similar subject matter, aiding the library user who likes to browse or rely on serendipity for their reading pleasure.  I don’t do a great deal of classifying, as our subject librarians tend to tackle this task, but there are some collections of books which I am responsible for classifying and sometimes special projects come up which require me to use this skill.  I find it fascinating, as the act of classification requires the answering of one question – what is this book (or whatever) about?  A simple question on the surface, but ultimately a rather complex one.  When cataloguing an item, I can assign multiple subject headings to it, to cover all the things it is ‘about’, but it can only be assigned one Dewey classmark, and only reside in one place in the library’s sequence.  One of my responsibilities is for books from the careers department, which can often go almost anywhere.  Job hunting and interviews live at 650.14 ‘Success in obtaining jobs and promotions’, but choice of career resides at 331.702.  Sometimes the borderline between job hunting and choice of vocation can be blurrier than you would expect.  Then, of course, there are the books on particular careers, which live with each relevant subject (finding a job as a lawyer lives with law in the 340s, for instance).  It is not always an easy task to decide what something is about and where it should go.

In some ways, the advent of electronic cataloguing means that classification is less important than it once was.  As long as the library user can find out where you’ve put something, it doesn’t really matter what number or shelf it has been assigned to.  They can still find it (as long as some other sneaky person hasn’t gone and hidden it, of course).  But in other ways it does matter.  You really want all your books in teaching mathematics to be shelved alongside each other rather than scattered across different stacks or even different floors.  Also, I’ve often thought that one of the greatest joys of libraries and bookshops is the discovery of the unexpected treasure sitting right next to the book you were originally looking for.

So there you have it.  What does this librarian do all day?  Essentially, I ensure that library users can find things.  Whether this is by maintaining accurate records for all the items we buy, describing them accurately so that relevant search terms will find them, or by ensuring that books covering similar subject matter sit alongside each other on the shelves to aid the interested browser.  I organise information, hoping that this will improve access to said information.  I adhere to codes and standards as closely as I can.  And I love it.  Cataloguing may be the nerdiest branch of librarianship, but I find it very satisfying.  There is something wonderful about looking at a full catalogue record and knowing you created it.  There’s something even more satisfying about knowing that your records will have helped students find materials for their assignment or assisted academics in their research.  As I check each subject heading and assign each Dewey classmark, I know that in some nerdy way I am helping people, whether they know it or not.


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    • Trish
    • August 31st, 2010

    This makes me appreciate all the work that goes into creating and maintaining an efficient, organised library.

    When I worked as a library assistant for a year in my teens I used to quite like doing the ‘back room’ stuff (not as complicated as the work you do obviously) because although I enjoyed dealing with the public it could be a bit exhausting being on show all the time and it was nice to escape.

    It’s strange how this image of the spinster librarian with hair in a bun persists, isn’t it? Perhaps it dates back to the time when women had to give up work in public service careers (such as teaching or librarianship) when they got married.

  1. As a retired cataloguer, indexer and reference librarian this would have been so useful to explain to non librarians what we do.

    No wonder librarians took to computers, after all we are the original search engines.

    • C
    • January 19th, 2017

    Might I quote parts of your first paragraph to use for a libguide for my students? It outlines what a librarian does in a lighthearted but educational way – it’s precisely what I want to say, but you did it better…let me know? Thanks for considering – C

  2. Yes, of course, C. No problem at all. I will also email to confirm this.

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