The Four Horsemen of Librarianship

When I was pursuing a Master’s in Library Science, I was unaware that there were such significant differences between the types of libraries. I didn’t know that moving from one to another would be so difficult, but even after I discovered this, it didn’t deter me from wanting to experience all four major types.

I don’t know any other librarians who have done this, but I’d love to meet them and chat with them about their experiences. And your library experiences will be different than mine, I’m sure, but if you who are curious about other types of libraries or if you’re a library student or a person who has contact with them, here’s Jenni’s Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Library Types.

School Libraries:

  1. Patrons:
    1. I hope you like children, because they are your patrons! Having a good handle of developmental stages is important for a school librarian. Children and teens develop at different rates mentally, emotionally, and physically, and knowing how to navigate this will greatly increase your chance of success.
    2. To a lesser extent, you are also serving the teachers. You will work with them to make sure they have necessary materials available and to support their instruction. In high schools and college-prep schools, you will even assist them in researching or even teaching techniques.
  2. Environment:
    1. You will mostly be contained within a single room. You may need to work persistently in making contacts with teachers, building bridges between the library and their classrooms. The more you can get out of the library and imbed yourself into the curriculum, the better. Try to recruit parent or student help so that you can either leave the library or dedicate time within the library to being an instructional partner.
    2. You will probably be on a shoestring budget. You can conquer through mending, repairing, and providing much-needed care to well-loved books! If you are an upper level librarian, look for consortium pricing on databases. Prioritize based on your students’ needs.
    3. Your administration (aka, your bosses) may not have much awareness of your profession, methods, purpose, or professional standards. Be prepared to explain and justify your actions.
    4. You’re gonna do it all: acquisitions, cataloging, circulation, mending, reader’s advisory, and more. You’ll need to make well-thought out decisions.
    5. There will be an ever-present balance between maintaining an open-access stance (age-appropriate, of course) and following the school’s policies, because you now live in both worlds. You’ll have to think long and hard about censorship and hills you’re willing to die on. Rely on your policy documents and ensure that your administration is aware of those policies and back your decision.
  3. Tips  & Suggestions:
    1. Document, document, document!!! Make sure all of your policies and practices (acquisitions, cataloging, circulation, mending, etc.) is clearly documents so that it can be replicated by a substitute or volunteer. Not only that, but you will sometimes forget and having a guiding document is invaluable.
    2. The bulk of your materials should serve the overarching developmental stage for the student age group that you are serving, then fill in with some lower and some higher.
    3. If you don’t know a lot about teaching theory and application, go to some workshops or even consider taking a few college courses on the side. It will help tremendously in terms of conveying information to teachers and administration who speak pedagogy (PLUS, it will help your own teaching!).
    4. Be prepared to answer and justify your decisions (and sometimes, your own relevance). Team up with teachers for projects and always be present on Parent-Teacher conference nights. Hang out in the hall, greet parents and introduce yourself. Find as many people to “be on your side” for situations that may come up later.
    5. You will have some request that you restrict how many items or what type of items their children check out, however, it’s important to set an early precedent that you cannot fulfill most of these requests. Parents are responsible for talking with their children and ensuring that their kids follow their preferences. There will be some exceptions, but overall, you’re primary responsibility is to the students and it’s simply too difficult to meet the specific requests of every parent.
    6. The environment should be welcoming, calming, and fun. It’s all up to you, as the librarian, to create that environment. SMILE! Talk to the students, get to know them, ask them a lot of questions, have fun activities!

Public Libraries:

  1. Patrons:
    1. Every age, every financial situation, every color – everyone. Each individual branch has regulars and an overall patron profile, but those profiles do not always reflect the town or city’s profile.
    2. You’ll experience what gratitude looks like in a completely different way than you’ve ever experienced. People are so often simply grateful for a 5 minutes of your time to help them look for a job posting, get started on a resume, print out that school assignment, or look up tax forms.
  2. Environment:
    1. You are now part IT, part social worker, part teacher, and yes, sometimes part babysitter. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very great thing! Working with the public can be challenging, but having a broad set of skills is all part of the fun!
    2. It can be absolutely heart breaking. Public libraries often provide space for those who need it. This includes the homeless, kids who have nowhere else to go after school, the unemployed, the elderly, or simply people who are lonely. Many wander in just for the sake of a warm space that has other human beings in it. There were times that staff snuck food out of the donation bins to give to very hungry young patrons.
    3. You get to talk about books a lot. While it’s a complete misnomer that you get to “sit around and read books all day”, you will get a lot of reader’s advisory questions and being well read is important. That doesn’t mean you have to have read every book you recommend, but flipping through what’s on your shelf is very helpful.
    4. You will work retail hours. Public libraries open and close on the same general hours as retail stores. It is not unusual for some libraries to be open until 9pm. You will also work weekends, minor holidays, and days before and after major holidays. It’s part of public service but most systems do a superb job rotating these responsibilities.
    5. Programs aren’t just for fun. There is thought, design, planning, and coordination that goes into every program. While many of them appear to just be fun on the surface, there is typically a learning element built in. It’s sneaky education!
  3. Tips & Suggestions:
    1. Libraries are often bustling places with long lines. For the most part, patrons are used to this, particularly if it’s their home library, and are patient. Take the time to make sure you’ve answered all the questions, but don’t dawdle. Being slammed is no joke.
    2. Expect the unexpected. Everything happens in these buildings: heart attacks, sex in bathrooms, kids pulling the fire alarms, poop smeared on walls, and ghosts. Ok, maybe not ghosts, but I’m pretty darn sure the first public library I worked at had some weird juju and it was creepy being there alone. Ask me about it sometime, I’ll happily tell you the stories! While this may sound horrifying, it is one of my favorite things about working in public systems. You absolutely never know what will happen!
    3. Being a successful public librarian takes a comfort level with people that many other areas of librarianship does not demand, and YES introverts can excel! You’ll need to be comfortable discussing accounts, books, activities, social programs, etc with the public. This becomes much easier with time. When I started as a public librarian, the thought of cold calling made me break out into a sweat, but the more I did it, the more comfortable it became. People like talking to the library.

Academic Libraries:

  1. Patrons:
    1. You will be pressed to meet both students’ and professors’ needs. This is a diplomatic balance and it will, sometimes, force your hand to choose. I recommend choosing students’ needs 9 times out of 10 but be very communicative to the instructor as to what you’re doing and why. They want what’s best for their students as well and this can start some very profitable conversations. You’re instructional partners, not enemies.
    2. The public – to a lesser extent.
  2. Environment:
    1. Be prepared to not know what you’re doing. Or at least, to feel that way. The world of academia is an entirely different work environment than I’ve ever known. You’re surrounded by incredibly intelligent and hard working people who may or may not always convey what they’re thinking in a concise manner. It’s a highly intellectual world that doesn’t always translate to other work environments. But fret not, good librarian, you already know what to do! It just might sound a little different than what you’re used to.
    2. Depending on the requirements of you job, you may be asked to research and publish. This is not as daunting as it sounds and there are many great resources out there to help you. Use those resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
    3. Academic libraries can be highly political and there are many philosophical, theoretical, and social issues that are discussed and debated every day. You may absolutely choose to stay out of it, but to excel in these libraries, it is important to think about the issues that are being discussed, ask questions, talk to colleagues about their views, and decide how you feel about them. This will help you in networking, research, and simply being part of the conversation.
  3. Tips & Suggestions:
    1. Just like in school libraries, I encourage you to take workshops or college classes on pedagogy if you haven’t already done so. You will probably be expected to teach and give workshops and having some solid teaching techniques will give you further comfort and confidence in your approaches.
    2. Give yourself a bit of time to learn the resource that are available. If your university has a discovery tool, rely on it heavily in the beginning. Pay attention to the where the search results are coming from. While not all databases and resources are pulled from a discovery tool, the main ones will be and being familiar with the larger resources first will give you some “padding” in learning the smaller, more specific resources.
    3. Be humble but rely on your knowledge. Listen to advice, but if it doesn’t fit with what you know or what you’re comfortable with, don’t take it! It’s ok to be fairly quiet in the first few months of a new job, but then let yourself come out of your shell, say something during a meeting, or speak up in a side conversation.
    4. Find a mentor, formally or informally. Watch a few people in your department do what they do, choose someone that you think is great at it, and talk to them!
    5. Be aware of reputation. This area of our industry is not only aware, but can also be quite concerned with reputation. You said something dumb on Twitter? Say something again – temper it, apologize if you need to, work it out. Being cooperative is just as important as being right.
    6. Focus what you do on your students. They’re the reason you’re there!
    7. Put yourself out there. Research, publish, volunteer for a presentation. It can be scary, even downright petrifying, but it will not only build your CV, but your knowledge as well.

Special libraries:

  1. Patrons:
    1. The professionals, researchers, and stakeholders of your company or space. Is that vague enough?
  2. Environment:
    1. This is, in my opinion, the most varied of all categories. This category includes archives, state and government libraries, medical and law libraries, research libraries, libraries that contain personal or company collections, etc. Special libraries are simply libraries with a narrower scope of materials and has a specialized subject and/or clientele. These can be public or private, corporate or nonprofit. A special library can even be housed within a larger, broader-scope library.
    2. Be prepared for a lot of focused work. Archives, records rooms, and specific topic research libraries can be very focused on metadata and tech tasks. Digitization projects are quite solitary and take a lot of focus. These libraries can equal long hours being by yourself, particularly if you are a solo librarian. If you are a peopley person, find ways to bring people into your day.
    3. While I am currently in a Records Room, a library of files as opposed to books or databases, I also know librarians who run research libraries for large companies. In this case, they would often create training videos on databases or do outreach, which is very similar to other types of libraries. In my case, I do a lot of digitization and metadata for accounting documents and maintain the physical records of various types of documents pertaining to my company’s business.
    4. These libraries take on an environment of their own, typically that of whatever organization they are serving. Corporate libraries tend to carry the same attitude and environment as the rest of the company, that is, you may or may not be seen as a professional within your own right. You may simply be seen as support or administrative staff, regardless of the fact that you are trained in a very specific way. If this is the case, you may be expected to fill in for an admin or receptionist when they are on vacation.
    5. Because these are specialized spaces, many companies offer benefits and pay outside the norm for the library industry, for better or for worse. Many corporations don’t know the norms for the library industry and will offer significantly less pay or ask for someone with a Bachelor’s in Library, misunderstanding that these degrees are rare and are not ALA accredited. On the upside, some special libraries offer significantly higher pay as you are either a solo librarian or they highly value the research assistance that you will provide.
  3. Tips & Suggestions:
    1. You will be expected to conform to the norms of your company, not the norms of librarianship. Sometimes, you will have to walk a daily line between your own training and what is asked of you. In my experience, I have known that certain practices don’t follow national standards, but being able to change these practices often simply takes time and trust. As time goes on, you will often be given more opportunity to provide professional input. Patience is key.


Tips on Moving from One Area to Another

  • Capitalize on the common skills of librarianship. In cover letters and interviews, focus on the commonalities of the library work you’ve done and what they’re looking for. We are librarians first, specialists second.
  • Think about your undergraduate work or previous professional work. For me, having an education background and previous work as an administrator in a nonprofit and corporate environment were both key in moving into the academic and corporate arena. I wish all librarians had some instruction knowledge. You will teach or train, in some capacity, in every type of library.
  • Be prepared to take short-term contracts. It is particularly difficult to break into research and academic libraries, depending on your geographic area. Many academic libraries offer contract work from time to time and applying for those can help you bridge the gap.
  • There seems to be two sides of the library chasm. On one side, there is school and public libraries, on the other side, there is academic and special libraries. While I do understand that there are different focuses of different libraries, I’m unsure why this chasm exists. School librarians and academic librarians should know how their training benefits students. Public librarians and academic librarians are often very focused on social issues and can be highly political environments. School librarians and special librarians are often used to solo work and being focused into details. To bridge this chasm, find ways to work with librarians on the other side and make connections to expand your network.
  • Finding your niche can be difficult, but don’t despair if you have a varied background. This is often a very positive thing in librarianship! If you’re having difficulty determining what is best for you, think about jobs and hobbies you’ve had, let your resume and passions speak to you.


I hope that this was helpful, or at least informative. If you have any questions, comments, complaints, or argument, please leave a comment!

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