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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Do Librarians Need to Know Anything?

A kind reader sent me this link to a blog post that’s mostly about the changing face of librarianship. It’s sort of about the Spectrum scholarship, the success of which is why the racial and gender makeup of librarianship has plummeted from its former 90% white women to the significantly more diverse 88% white women.

But then the post changes course, and that’s when it gets interesting, because instead of a library school student praising a scholarship (no big news there), we get a picture of what a student at a really good library school (or “I school” if you must) thinks library school is about these days.

Two passages near the end stuck out to me. Here’s the first:

Fewer and fewer LIS students will know what incunabula are. And that’s ok. Although the traditional formats of information are dying, the pulse of librarianship has never been more vibrant. The mediums through which people access knowledge are transforming, and it’s time our sensibilities and expectations transform with them.

If you didn’t read the post, the incunabula bit refers to the opening anecdote where a library patron (he actually wrote “patron” and not “customer,” so library school hasn’t corrupted him!) asks, “You’re not familiar with the Incunabula? Are you a librarian?” Apparently, he wasn’t familiar.

I doubt that fewer LIS students know what incunabula are than previously. All those students in the past who went to library school wanting to be public or school librarians probably had no idea what incunabula are. Only people who work with very old books would need to know.

On the other hand, if you’re a professional in the archives or special collections of a large research library and don’t know what incunabula are, then you’ve missed something somewhere.

I’m also not really sure the pulse of librarianship has never been more vibrant, even if I could figure out a way to measure that pulse. But if you’re measuring in terms of passion about, interest in, or controversies raging around, then the pulse of librarianship has always been pretty strong. Read through the 136 year history of the Library Journal to get an idea.

That part about the mediums and transforming sensibilities seems mostly right. The bad thing about adding new mediums of information to the library mix is that they don’t always replace old mediums. Incunabula are still around, and various historians still study them, which means some librarians or archivists still have to know about them. That dreaded microfilm is still pretty useful until someone finally digitizes it all. I’ve heard libraries are still buying print books, but maybe that’s just a baseless rumor.

Here’s another passage I wonder about:

There is no sine qua non subject matter that a librarian must possess; rather, the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information. In this way, libraries are not just book collectors; they’re life changers. And that’s truly changing the face of librarianship.

If librarians don’t know what incunabula are, they might not know what sine qua non means, either, so it might be best to write everything about libraries at the sixth grade level just to make sure people get it.

I have a couple of questions about this claim: first, is it true that there’s no required subject matter a librarian must possess, and second, if not, then was there ever?

Taking the second question first, I’d say no. If there really is no specific knowledge required to be a librarian now, then there wasn’t in the past. Even before they transformed into the amorphous schools of “information,” library school was still pretty random.

Some schools might require a few courses, but at others you could take any courses you wanted. You might take reference and cataloging and still not know what an incunable was.

What’s more, if there is any required knowledge for being a librarian, I’m not entirely sure what that would be. Any suggestions? At the minimum these days, I’d say if you don’t know how to search a database effectively, then you probably shouldn’t crow about your magnificent librarian skills. However, that’s true of the professionals in any field concerned with research, not just librarians.

If you really have no idea how information is produced, protected, and distributed in America, then you’re probably a poorly informed librarian.

If you’re planning to be a librarian, then it’s also probably necessary to know something about how libraries work.

All of that could be considered knowledge about the creation, distribution, and organization of information in a society. There’s probably even a course about that kind of thing. Don’t librarians have to know something about this?

Granted, lots of people graduate from library school who don’t know much, but I’m assuming they’ll be bad librarians until they do know something.

However, I’m pretty sure the claim that “the only sine qua non for today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) librarian is a willingness to assist people find and use information” isn’t true. Without a lot of other knowledge, this isn’t even very helpful for all those people librarians want to help.

The ability to “find information” alone requires quite a bit of knowledge, unless librarians are just there to type words into Google for people too dumb to figure out that task. Finding good information is a tough job, and anyone who’s ever seen a top-notch reference librarian at work knows a willingness to help isn’t enough.

If people are emerging from library school with only a willingness to help people find and use information, but without the knowledge required to find and use information, that can’t be enough. However, I don’t think that’s all that people coming out of library school have in common.

It’s odd that I’d be defending library schools, which I consider far too easy to get into and out of, but there’s got to be something they’re teaching that’s required knowledge for being a librarian, or at least a good librarian.

Is there anything librarians need to know to be librarians?



  1. In my experience working as a public librarian, I’ve found that I’ve needed to know a little about a lot of things. When someone tells me that librarians “know everything.” I often respond that “Librarians don’t know everything; they just know where to look.” This is true, but it’s misleading in the sense that it implies you can look up everything you need to know.

    In reality, the most frustrating experiences I often have occur when patrons are asking detailed questions about a topic with which I’m unfamiliar. Finding even the simplest answers becomes difficult when you don’t know the subject terminology, and even though I don’t function in a specialized library, people don’t hesitate to come to me with specialized questions.

    So, believe it or not, my liberal arts background actually comes in handy occasionally, as does my tendency to read and research voraciously, as do all the life-experiences that I’ve accumulated over the years. I’m still flummoxed a lot (yes, I had to look up sina qua non), but each little bit of knowledge I accumulate becomes part of personal, well-integrated database I can refer to in the future.

  2. Yes, quite a lot of knowledge interfacing many topics related to how info works and how learning works — publishing, classification, indexing, Boolean, database structures, web, communications theory, and the most important from my perspective: teaching & pedagogy. Lots of experience in research and interrogating both users and experts helps. Teaching experience helps. Organizational , facilitation, supervising, and management skills too. I could go on and on.

  3. It all depends on the type of librarian we are talking about. A children’s librarian has little use for indexing, cataloging, or serious research skills.

    Pedagogy and teaching on the other hand is significantly more important for them to know then a cataloger. Not to toot the horn of the Reference/IL librarians or anything but they are probably one of the few in that group that need to know all of these things.

    The best thing I ever did in library school was concurrently get my “Information Literacy Instruction” certificate (basically a collection of classes where we taught IL for librarians for free or as “interns”). Nothing substitutes for practice, IMO.

    Working in a department of librarians with different undergraduate degrees (or second masters) and interests also helps.

  4. Children’s librarians need to know basic reference, which certainly includes a base knowledge of indexing, cataloging and research. Specialization is for insects, as Robert Heinlein said.

  5. Joneser says:

    Well, the blog is from the “Hack Library School”. I think that summarizes things quite nicely.

  6. Using words like incunabula makes you sound like a smartypants. I’m sure that all four librarians who work in a job where this word is relevant know what incunabula means. The rest of us should focus on skills related to fixing jams in the printer. And being nice.

    We librarians may have some shortcoming related to our character, but being stupid and ignorant is probably not among them. We know what incunabula means, we’re just not socially adept enough to keep it to ourselves. We’re dying for people to notice our super-intelligence. We’d be a little more popular and a lot better company if we avoid words like codex and verso. Along with Strunk and White’s advice to be clear and avoid needless words, let’s add “quit using words that smell funny.”

  7. Development Arrested says:

    “Children’s librarians need to know basic reference, which certainly includes a base knowledge of indexing, cataloging and research. Specialization is for insects, as Robert Heinlein said.”

    Really this depends on the library you work at. The children’s librarian where I worked did little more than pick out cute books to read to kids and find some tacky crafts to keep the kids busy.

    I’m sure she did other stuff too. Facebook and Pinterest don’t look at themselves for one thing.

    The problem with this attitude presented is that there’s no unifying theme in librarianship anymore. Who would want to make a career out of just “assisting” people in the vaguest terms and providing them with entertainment? Sounds like a very minuscule step up from working in an arcade (both sound cool when you’re a young nerd)

    There needs to be a central theme around a library’s mission. And yes, it needs to revolve around information. But that’s not enough. 90% (completely made up number) of all people’s information needs can be satisfied by the ‘Net. So where does that leave the library? Libraries could provide two things the Internet can’t: Authority and information literacy training.

    This should be the library’s focus.

    • You nailed it DA. The key is to offer what others do not and do so at a very high level — else your niche will be claimed by others. You have the good sense to acknowledge the library niche has been claimed and think about moving to more fertile ground. IMO, there’s lots of it.

      The new knowledge/info terrain is like the American West 150 years ago; it has some established players yet there are still vast resources and wide-open spaces. I share your sense that “Authority” is one of those rich spaces. What opportunity do you see there? Is it an opportunity for the profession, the Institution, or both?

    • Also as a reply to Jean:

      I completely agree with you. The problem is that most MILS students have no interest in being a librarian in this mold. They WANT to be the librarians that do much of what was mentioned above and no more (as well as cruise through a graduate degree to do so). The overwhelming majority of MILS students and former MILS students I speak to say that the information literacy and information management classes were their absolute least favorite classes, as well as the least useful in their opinion.

      As I’ve said before, I feel that a necessary split is in order for our field. There should be a clear delineation between the information and library sides of the field so that people can focus on one or the other.

    • Hi Joey – I believe the change you’re calling for has happened in the financial industry over the past 35 years.

      Decades ago, the finance profession and banks were closely aligned. People called themselves bankers and made loans, did financial planning, etc. A split occurred as the monetary world became more complex and technology displaced many jobs within the institution. The mid-1980s saw the birth of the modern financial industry and a growth in specialized jobs, products and services. Today, the finance profession is generally associated with analysis, planning and investment. Banks (with the exception of the “too big to fail” ones) have remained tied to services like checking, savings, CDs.

      So … what if professional librarians split from libraries? Can you imagine what type of work they’d do and what specialized jobs, products and services might emerge?

    • DA – hi again. Had forgotten I wrote two back-to-back essays in 2010 on how librarians can help bring back authoritative sources.

      It’s a rich topic and these essays barely scratch the surface. The first provides a short summary of the dilemma as I see it and posits a “librarian checklist” to help make sure the works you create are not part of the problem. The second dives into the deep end of the pool with thoughts on the need (and some ideas) for increasing the trustworthiness of medical information.

      Thought you might be interested.

  8. Lorne Bair says:

    A curious article (the original one, I mean), which has solicited some even more curious replies, both there and here. While I sympathize that the great majority of librarians will never, ever encounter an incunable, it puzzles me that someone seeking the degree of “Master” of “Information Systems” would not be expected, along the way, to acquaint him or herself with the history of the field. What has “mastery” come to?

    Or, in more concrete terms, why shouldn’t a “sine qua non” of Masters-level library training be a thorough grounding in the history of information systems — and, by extension (the book having been at the center of this history for the past 500 years) a comprehensive course in book (and printing) history?

  9. Actually, children’s librarians do everything any other kind of public librarian on a service desk does, we just doe it for five different developmental levels instead of one.

  10. Who cares what this future librarian actually knows? They’re increasing our “diversity” and nothing is more important than that, except maybe building green libraries. Actually understanding the basic terminology of your profession or being able to do your job well is soooo 20th century.

  11. I think librarians need to know how to learn. As obvious as that may sound, a lot of people don’t know how to learn new things and how to teach themselves new things. If we are to keep pace with the “transforming sensibilities,” then we have to be able to learn new skills and understand new ideas and concepts. Once we can do that, then we can focus on teaching and assisting our patrons with those new ways of finding and using information.

    • Really interesting perspective, Lisa. My experience suggests this ability is not a passive skill but instead comes with a high degree of energy & restlessness, a hunger for stimulation & change — things that are anathema to institutions. Could libraries support people with this ability and inclination?

  12. Michelle Sellars says:

    Based on the above comments, there seems to be a lot of disrespect and misunderstanding of all types of librarianship other than the one the poster is employed in. I personally agree with Lorne, and believe that the MLIS degree really should mean something more than it currently seems to. And if you’re working in a library with incunabula, you should know what they are. If you work in that library using the word doesn’t make you sound “like a smartypants” to patrons, it makes you sound like someone who knows what they’re doing.

  13. David Holloway says:

    I sympathize with the young librarian who didn’t know an arcane term like Incunabula. I do not sympathize with his defensiveness in the face of his ignorance. I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with my master’s in Library Science in 1981- we did learn about the history of books in a glancing way as part of the initial ‘core’ semester and those of us with an interest in such things were able to study it in much more depth. I would expect a student working in special collections to learn what incunabula meant at some stage– which is what this gentleman did. One of the things I have learned in over 30 years working in the library world is that the road is very, very wide. Nobody can know everything– but nobody should be proud of their ignorance either.

    • Development Arrested says:

      Why are so many people proud of ignorance? Especially when it comes to math and science?

  14. I am a librarian in an academic library, and I didn’t know what “incunabula” are. So what-I don’t work in archives or special collections, nor did I did a class such as “History of the Book” while getting my MLS. I now know the definition of the word, so other than my curious nature being satisfied, I am not going to be a better librarian because of it.

    Reading this scenario just reinforced that so much of the public has not a clue what librarians do and the nature of their work. (I could blame ALA, but I won’t.) In all likelihood, the person whom a patron encounters at a public services desk is not a librarian. At the check out desk in my library, the person probably that helps you in a work study undergraduate student. Doubt they would have known what “incunabula” are either, but they would have know to go to a staff member to get assistance for the patron. At our Special Collections desk, it is likely the patron would have encountered a history undergrad. Again, they would have reached out to a staff member to assist the patron. Professional of all varieties need to consult sources for additional information. Why should librarians be any different?

  15. Dagny Taggart says:

    I would suggest that lack of knowledge of incunabula–the term and the concept–precludes one from being truly called a master of library science, no matter one’s specialty.

  16. mildred says:

    Yes I think librarians need to know things I as a patron do not know. For example going into a library and asking if they have a book on english hallmarks for jewelry should not result in the “librarian” pulling up a page I already found at home. It should not result in him shouting across the library to another librarian who “knows about these things” (yes this really happened to me) it should be that he or she can do a search to see if that library or any other one in the mix has such a reference book. Of course, I know how to do that at home… so what good was this “creme de la creme” that the Library Director told me she only hires. I could have brushed him aside and done his job without a degree. It also requires that when I ask a “reference librarian” how to search west law they refuse to answer as they cannot give legal advice (yes this also happened at the same library). Fortunately I figured it out. It also requires that patrons, like myself, do not have to go to the reference desk to tell the librarian that the catalogs numbers on a book are incorrect because a quilting book does not belong on a shelf with numbers for real estate books. Obviously this is a sad state of affairs when a patron must point out such obvious and glaring issues, along with telling the reference librarian (the creme de la creme) how to place a hold on a book at a participating library… oh creme where art thou…Incunabula, I’d probably have to show them how to look it up.

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