March 17, 2018

The Librarian Doesn’t Exist | Peer to Peer Review

Many of you are probably familiar with the TV movie The Librarian: Quest for the Spear or its sequels. For those who aren’t, the lead character, Flynn Carsen, is a man in his thirties who has never left college. He obtains 22 degrees before he’s finally kicked out. He’s then recruited to be “The Librarian,” the head of a secret, enormous museum of strange and magical artifacts. The IMDb page quotes a scene from the movie that shows The Librarian is different from mere librarians:

Charlene: What makes you think you could be the Librarian?

Flynn Carsen: Well, I’ve read a lot of books.


Charlene: Don’t try to be funny. I don’t do funny.

Flynn Carsen: I’m sorry.

Charlene: [after a pause] What makes you think you could be the Librarian?

Flynn Carsen: I know the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching. I can set up an RSS feed…

Charlene: Everybody knows that. They’re librarians. What makes you think you are the Librarian?

The distinction is important. Carsen isn’t becoming a librarian. He becomes The Librarian, and he works for The Library.

Recently I was engaged in an online discussion about whether there are or can be a basic set of skills that all librarians should master. I have yet to see a persuasive argument for any particular library-specific skill that absolutely every librarian or library school graduate must have, and I’m pretty sure that’s because no such argument can be made. Most claims about what all librarians need to know or do or think rest on the assumption that there is a mythical creature—The Librarian. However, The Librarian doesn’t exist.

The arguments against a unified skills theory of librarianship are so many it hardly seems worth going through them, but since we’re sometimes told that all librarians need to be such-and-such or know so-and-so, maybe they are worth repeating. The most obvious one is that not all librarians do the same job, and there are some librarian jobs that have almost nothing in common with other librarian jobs. I think a lot of prophetic or dictatorial librarians forget about this when they try to define other librarians out of the profession. They know what they do, what they’re colleagues do, maybe what some of their friends who are librarians do, but they’ve hardly experienced or mastered every job in every library done by a librarian.

The contrast I usually make is between the public library in the small town my grandmother is from (population 500) and the large research library I work in (serving about 7,500 students and 1,100 faculty). The small town librarian is far closer to being The Librarian than anyone where I work. If you’re the only librarian in a small library, you need to know a little bit of everything necessary to make your library work, from standard library skills like cataloging, reference, and collection development to other less specific library skills like dealing with a board of directors and promoting library services in the community. The breadth of skills is enormous, but the depth probably isn’t, while still being completely appropriate to the situation.

My library, on the other hand, has about eighty professional librarians, plus many dozens of high level support staff, many of which have specialized skills or knowledge, especially in foreign languages. The total depth and breadth of experience is overwhelmingly vast compared to the single small-town librarian, while the small-town librarian might be at least competent in more library-related things than any given librarian here. Nevertheless, different libraries need different librarians with different skills.

Or consider various types of librarian jobs. Does the director of a huge research library have or need the same skills as a suburban children’s librarian? Does the law firm librarian need the same skills as a rare books librarian? Does the systems librarian need the same skills as the subject bibliographer? If so, what skills do they all need and why? I’d say none. As Lane Wilkinson put it in a post that was part of the online discussion, “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.”

Instead of reveling in the diversity of the profession or within an organization, some librarians would prefer to impose more order on that chaos. They argue that all librarians should be able to do X thing, and it’s usually something that they do themselves. Making that claim implies that librarians who don’t do X thing aren’t good librarians, or perhaps not even librarians at all.

They probably don’t think they’re doing this. In fact, they probably think they’re acting for the best to persuade their recalcitrant colleagues to step in line and do what good librarians do. But what they’re also doing is trying to define what a librarian is and what librarians do to include what they happen to do or believe, but to exclude what they don’t do or believe.

Perhaps the controversy is inevitable. Librarianship has always been a problematic profession to define. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, what lawyers and doctors and therapists do, but I’ve rarely met anyone who isn’t already familiar with academic libraries who has any idea what I do in my job. If I just say “librarian,” they think I shelve books and shush people, or sit around reading books all day.

The Librarian doesn’t exist. The Library doesn’t exist. What we have are tens of thousands of people working in thousands of different workplaces called libraries, some of which are similar to each other but dissimilar to the rest. Because of that, there can be no one definition of what librarians are or one set of skills they should all have.

Instead, think of librarians like a family, with family resemblances. Mom and Junior have the same soulful eyes, but Junior has Dad’s floppy ears. Put all the traits that the extended family shares together, and you get the set of family resemblances. Put all the skills that libraries in total need people to be able to do, and you get The Library. Combine all those skills together and you get The Librarian. If you can find that single person, please let me know, and I’ll change my mind about the whole issue.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. While it is hard to imagine a librarian who needs to master every facet of the skill set (and you might say that about other professions as well – even a car mechanic might be a tune-up wiz but not qualified to rebuild a transmission) but two essential skills come to mind for me. One, I think every librarians should have a sound knowledge of information and materials organization systems – and skills for information retrieval based on how information is organized.You may not use that skill if you are the dean of research library but you probably couldn’t get that far if you didn’t have this basic skill to start with. The second one is more aspirational but I believe it would be great for every librarian, no matter what they do, to have a sound knowledge of learning theory – understanding how people learn and absorb knowledge. Even if you work in systems or digitization having a good understanding of pedagogy might help you do your job better because at the end of the day the bulk of what we do as librarians is about helping people learn something new – or assisting them to do so. I can also think of some customer/user-centric skills (more the soft skills) that every librarian should have given the service-orientation of libraries but those are more the kinds of things you learn in the workplace.

  2. Steven, I’m much more comfortable with talking about theoretical knowledge specifically related to the profession of librarianship, which would include a “a sound knowledge of information and materials organization systems,” and possibly learning theory as well. I blogged about two broad areas–rhetoric and philosophy–making the argument that these two areas of knowledge are much more fundamental than some specific skills. I was being both serious and facetious at the same time, since I do believe that all librarians would benefit from having more knowledge of rhetoric, but I wouldn’t presume to tell them they absolutely must have to be good librarians. What I find more puzzling is the claim that all librarians should learn some specific skill set that isn’t inherently related to librarianship. The specific instance is coding, but I have the same objection to all such claims. The best distinction might be between knowledge and skills. Broad theoretical knowledge of a number of areas is useful, perhaps even necessary, to do good work as a librarian, but the ability to apply a large number of specific and highly developed skills really depends on the job.

  3. dennis t. says:

    So, is this a being vs becoming thing? Are you saying there is no platonic form of librarian, just a bunch of instances that lack telos? You mention lawyers and doctors but does THE doctor exist? THE lawyer? The post strikes me as some sort of straw man, but I’m not sure for what…

  4. The ability to read minds.
    Also helpful is the ability to read call numbers (and reach the books) on both the top and bottom shelves. ;-)

  5. Wayne BT says:

    Dennis, I’m not sure if The Doctor exists, because sightings of him have never been verified. Pretty sure The Lawyer doesn’t exist. This was more of a reductio ad absurdum of any claim that “all librarians need to know or be able to do X.” The specific example that occurred recently was about coding skills, with people claiming that coding skills were “essential” for librarians, but I’ve seen various claims like that since becoming a librarian. Any such claim is suspect and I believe unsupportable, but since they’re so many of them then if they’re all true, the only people who could be librarians would be the sort of uberlibrarian exemplified by Flynn Carsen.

  6. My library, on the other hand, has about eighty professional librarians, plus many dozens of high level support staff, many of which have specialized skills or knowledge, especially in foreign languages.

    I work in an academic library at a state university with almost 3 times the student population. We do not have anywhere near 80 professional librarians on staff. Princeton must be VERY generous to its library.

    Oh, yes—I agree there is really no such thing as The Librarian or at least the typical Librarian.

  7. Johnnie, yes,Princeton is very generous to the library. It’s a well loved institution within the university. The support allows us both to create deep and broad collections that benefit both our users and others who borrow our materials through ILL, and to give a generous amount of individualized support to the students and faculty.

  8. Thanks for the link; it’s been fascinating to watch this discussion evolve over the past several weeks. And I’m glad you finally played the Wittgenstein card. I had toyed with the idea, but there’s that nagging problem of extension: if resemblance is the basis for distinction, then we lose the ability to make meaningful distinctions between concepts, since we can *always* point to arbitrary resemblances. For example, take the set of 80 librarians at Princeton and add the set of 30 or so faculty from the Department of Philosophy. You can easily create subsets based on resemblances between skills, so it follows that the Philosophy faculty and some subset of the librarians share a family resemblance and, hence, the Philosophy faculty are librarians too (and the librarians are philosophy professors). Rinse, lather, repeat, and the set of people we’re willing to label ‘librarian’ is coextensive with the population of the Earth. At some point, hard distinctions must be made. As for myself, I think skills are a red herring and I prefer describing the extension of ‘librarian’ along functional lines. Sort of a fancied-up version of “a librarian is a person responsible for a library”. Of course, that pushes the question back to “what is a library?” but I think that’s an easier (though not easy) question.

  9. If you want to be really controversial, change “what a librarian can do” with “what all librarians must believe” to be a good librarian. I’ve never met another profession so monolithic in its set of beliefs as to completely ostracize those who do not agree with their conception of what an “ideal” librarian should believe. The same goes for any librarian who does not blindly lap up every proclamation issued on high from the ALA.

    • …, or criticizes ALA for not actually taking a leadership role in the profession! How many millions of dollars do they collect in dues and fees to what end? To host an annual conference during which the same tired old issues keep being re-discussed? Where’s the leadership???

  10. Lane, I think the extension problem by restricting our family to those who actually work in libraries, which itself could be a contentious issue. And we’d have to exclude those skills that only one librarian had. It hardly answers the question about librarian skills, but it at least eliminates the philosophy department from consideration, and I’m pretty sure they’d be glad about that.

    And Guest, I don’t mind a little controversy, but I think I’d need more specifics before even beginning to wade into that issue.

  11. blgriffin says:

    If this is the case, and it may be, that there is no specific set of skills, then how do we certify/train librarians and justify the profession? Why hire you with your MLS, when the guy down the street with the BA will do the trick? Or even the bright gal with the GED.

    There is an archetypal idea of Librarian that may not match a reality, but isn’t it worth keeping and perhaps further developing in a specific, practical way if we are to continue to exist?

  12. blgriffen, this is where the confusion often seems to enter the debate. Saying there are no specific skills that ALL librarians need to have is not the same thing as saying there are no specific skills that libraries need. This is why I disagree with, for example, those who say all librarians need to learn how to code, or that coding is an “essential skill” for all librarians. My library has and needs coders. It also has and needs people to work with students on research projects, to develop collections, to liaise with academic departments. There are any number of things the library schools might teach or that are considered professional librarian skills without claiming that all librarians need to know them. Once we start making claims about skill sets ALL librarians need, we’re already starting the wrong conversation, which is what I’ve been trying to say in various ways.

  13. Jo Ann Reynolds says:

    And I’ll stir the pot further by saying that going to library school is not essential to being a good librarian. It is only one way to obtain some of the skills which contribute to being an effective librarian. Many of the skills mentioned in your blog and in the comments can be learned (sometime better) in other fields, in life experience, or on the job in a real library. With staffing so short it always irks me to see “Librarians” getting mentoring and training while the other professional staff, those without MLS are treated like a slightly lower form of human life. It is such a waste of human resources. And why is it library science anyway? I haven’t found anything remotely scientific about it since I started working in an academic library in 1994, not compared with the work I did for my MS, at any rate.

  14. David Wuolu says:

    I’ve always felt that the key trait which unites us across all library types is our understanding of the ethical use of information. Our commitment to intellectual freedom, protection of reader privacy, and overall service ethic seem to be pretty solid core values, if not skills. Though I may be reading the question slightly differently than originally intended.

  15. Jim Rettig says:

    Can we agree on literacy as an absolutely essential skill, not just for librarians, but for all library workers? After that, it probably becomes very fragmented. “Literacy” is prey to this; there are multiple literacies–financial literacy, geographic literacy, visual literacy, etc., and, of course, our favorite, information literacy. (Though I prefer the more dynamic and organic concept of information fluency as something that grows from a baseline level just as one’s literacy in his/her native language oral and written can progress well beyond that minimum.)

    And that doesn’t even get us to the point of identifying and agreeing upon a second essential skill…

  16. Jo Ann, you’re right, and you’ll know from reading my comments elsewhere that lots of skills that are extremely useful for being an effective librarian aren’t taught in library school. They’re also not librarian-specific skills, though, which is one distinction to make. Everyone who engages with the public can benefit from some rhetorical training, but only catalogers need to master MARC or RDF. As for the science, it can be read in two ways. Many LIS practitioners consider it a social science, and attempt to investigate questions with social science tools. However, there’s an older 19th century sense of science that means an organized body of knowledge about a particular topic that can be questioned, criticized, and improved. LIS definitely has an organized body of knowledge about the classification and organization of information among other things.

    And David, I also believe there are some core values, and implicitly made that argument in my book Libraries and the Enlightenment when I tried to show how the scientific and political values of the Enlightenment have influenced American libraries. The values claim and the more functional definition offered by Lane escape the difficulties of all the skills claims, and I think are more fruitful. (Although “Guest” might not approve of some of the values claimed for librarianship.)

    Of all the essential skills mentioned, I think literacy is the best. That and being able to reach books on both the top and bottom shelves.

  17. Bob Watson says:

    I think some of the issue can be framed as “inputs” versus “outputs.” The library profession — of the Dewey-trained variety — was designed to provide the inputs which create and maintain the library. The training for “output” (helping others actually use the library) came later but was handicapped because the “input” folks, mostly catalogers and older administrators, ran ALA and hence controlled grad school curricula (from the late 19th century to, at least, the late 20th). The profession, in my view, has never adequately trained (or educated) those who are expected to provide outputs — though I might be persuaded that children’s librarians are, at least, half the way there. Reference librarians, especially on the public library side, continue to be trained in tools (now websites, apps, etc.) rather than in the knowledges needed to effectively dissect a question and either find an answer or send the question on to someone with greater subject knowledge.

  18. ALL librarians should be able to put materials back in the correct place. That is, they should be able to read a call number and understand it (e.g., the P’s and the 800’s are literature). IMO all librarians ought to be WILLING to put materials back in the correct place, too. (Not as a major job duty, but if you’re in the current periodicals section and see that Time occupies the slot for Country Living, you could take a moment to put it back.)
    ALL librarians should know enough about their libraries to be able to direct someone to the department or division that is most likely to have what the person wants.
    ALL librarians should understand the principles of intellectual freedom and patron privacy.

    My office bulletin board is covered with buttons for various causes and events. I have also pinned up quotes for inspiration. There is Micah 6:8, my favorite Bible verse. There is Psalm 140, my favorite Psalm (try invoking it before a board meeting). And there is this definition of a librarian by Lawrence Clark Powell: ” A good librarian is not a social scientist, a documentalist, a retrievalist, or an automaton. A good librarian is a librarian: a person with good health and warm heart, trained by study and seasoned by experience to catalyze books and people.”

  19. Donna Bright says:

    Interesting post/article (I actually saw it first in LJ). I do not know why, but I was expecting a discussion on ‘soft skills’ versus tasks. In my opinion, the different jobs to which you refer – children’s librarian, small-town librarian, research librarian, etc. – are differentiated because of the tasks of each job. In order to accomplish those tasks successfully people need training, information/knowledge and perhaps, experience. And no they don’t all need the same training, information/knowledge and experience for the different jobs. I am more interested in whether there are a set of common ‘soft skills’ or ‘core compentencies’ that library workers need to have to undertake their different job tasks successfully. Certainly I agree with ‘literacy’ and I would suggest that ‘curiosity’ and a real desire, and ability, to work in a customer-focused business are others.

  20. Librarianship is a service profession. Every librarian needs to have good customer service skills. It doesn’t matter if they are front end (reference, circulation, etc.) or working in the back (cataloging, systems, etc.) customer service is still important. Even if you don’t work directly with patrons, you still have “customers.” And what you do still effects the patrons.

    So I would say a heart for service to others is essential to being a good librarian. That’s what makes us so incredibly vital to society.

  21. It isn’t so much about trying to name particular skills that every librarian will need in their professionsl life. Rather, what skills can somebody who you have granted the title “librarian” be guaranteed to be familiar with? Because if you’re NOT deciding on some sort of “you must know this much cataloging” (or reference or outreach etc) to be a librarian there isn’t a real need for an MLS degree. Rather the courses could be folded into different academic departments and people could pick and choose a diverse set and hope that they find a job that matches what they chose. Indeed “The Librarian” doesn’t have an MLS. Neither does the Librarian of Congress. But conferring an MLS degree implies that there is some sort of minimal familiarity across the breadth of the field, just as an MD implies some familiarity across the field of medicine, even if a specialist psychiatrist rarely deals with infectious diseases.

  22. It takes knowing how to find what you are looking for.