What is a librarian?

The more experience I gain from my admittedly short working career in academic libraries (so far), the more that hallowed title, “librarian”, seems not necessarily to elude me, but to defy definition.

Back in the dank halls of Reading University where I first wondered about going into librarianship (as you do), I looked at the university library and innocently categorised all the staff there as librarians. My only criteria for such being that you had to work in a library. Seemed obvious.

After a few months travelling, this still seemed to be an attractive career – embarrassingly, I guess, because I loved books! And more importantly – though I didn’t really analyse it at the time  – I liked being in an environment where people had the potential to learn in a kind of free and unstructured way.

My first job was as a graduate trainee, and I quickly learnt that I was a library assistant. Someone who clearly, assisted the library. The plan was to continue into an MA in Library and Information Studies, which I’m quite glad I delayed for several years. In that time I became an issue desk head and learnt. A lot. By this time discussion of whether you needed a qualification to get ahead in libraries was raging – but at the same time competition for jobs was hotting up – so I decided it would be good. And I am actually interested in libraries and information! PLUS – of course, a life-long learner.

So now I have qualified. Does that make me a librarian? Well I was doing exactly the same job as I had done before and whilst I qualified, though had a lot more understanding of the broader profession and more skills to take forward into new roles. But I don’t think anyone else would call me a librarian (except the students ironically!) And anyway, I was still called an issue desk head, which probably sounds complete gobbledegook to anyone who’s never been to a library. So I normally call myself a librarian to banks and insurance companies (but I still feel a bit guilty about it!). Which brings me to the point that no one outside libraries really cares what we call ourselves, do they?

But still, I think, those of us who aspire to work in the profession want to one day be called a librarian. At the moment I’m “acting-up” as a Subject Librarian (which sounds like I’m pretending – it’s all kosher I promise!) So now, finally, I am at least called a librarian. So what makes me a librarian now? Well, I’m buying books, and helping people with subject resource enquiries. Though I’m by no means a subject specialist (my undergraduate degree was in English and I seem to be the Engineering Librarian). Do I need to have a degree in Engineering to be an Engineering Librarian? Possibly – but what about Earth Sciences which I also cover? Should Librarians only be a true Librarian of subjects they have a good knowledge of?

In my Subject Librarian role I’m still managing to help people get books (which I did as an issue desk head), navigate electronic resources (which I did as an issue desk head), improve service (which I did as an issue desk head)…I suppose I’m saying that I don’t feel anymore of a librarian now than I did before. And if I am a librarian now, do I cease to be a librarian when I finish my acting up period and go back to being an issue desk head?

What I love about working in libraries now is that excitement that comes from knowing that all that knowledge is out there and is accessible. And whether I’m a Subject Librarian or an Issue Desk Head, or a Shelver, or a Cataloguer…all of us are helping people get to that knowledge. Isn’t that librarianship?

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