What Kind of Librarian Are You?

In my almost ten years as a librarian, I have had the opportunity to work in different kinds of librarianship.  I was a school library media specialist for six years, seven if you include my field experience.  I was also an academic librarian and professor for two years.  Now I am a public librarian in adult services.  I think many of us stumbled along before we happily landed where we are.  Less of a calling and more of an arriving.  You don't need to KNOW where you are going, but you do need to know who you are.  Here is what I have learned along the way for those of you who are still trying to figure out...


Elementary School Media Librarianship

I began as a school library media specialist for many reasons, but I mainly got the cert because I wanted to be as marketable as possible.  I entered librarianship later in life.  I was married with a kid and dogs and a mortgage and car payments.  I needed a job after graduation as soon as possible.  Common sense just dictated that if I had both my public and media specialist certs I would find a job faster.  I also wanted to be available for my kid.  I had heard that public librarians have "terrible hours" and so when I was offered a job as an elementary school media specialist I said yes.  

  • The money was amazing.  This is probably because it was an affluent district but in general, I find that media specialists make more entry level than the other types of librarianship I have experienced.  As a ten-month employee, you can also work elsewhere in the summer and make even more.
  • You are the boss as soon as you walk in the door.  You are the director of your library.
  • Did I mention you get to make all of the decisions?
  • You get to expose children to reading!  It can all begin with you.  Some of those kids will look back on their years with you as a reason for their future success.  
  •  You get to teach.  I didn't know I would love teaching when I started but I really grew to love it.
  • The hours are great, as long as you are a morning person.  Roughly 7:30-3:00 with every holiday off and then some.  
  • Benefits are pretty amazing too.
  • You are the boss.  That means if anything goes wrong, it's on you.  It also means that you have to do everything yourself.  In public and academic libraries (for the most part), there are departments that handle different parts of librarianship like shelving, purchasing, circulation, etc.  When you are a media specialist that is all on you.  You might get lucky and have an assistant, but that is happening less and less as libraries and librarians are being cut from schools.  
  • You are a teacher which also means you need to do lesson plans, know the IEP's of every student in your classroom, and have to do assessments and classroom management.  This is definitely tougher when you're a media specialist at the elementary level.  I ran elementary libraries in two different district schools and taught grades 1-5 at both schools. And I couldn't use the same lesson plans for both libraries because they didn't have the same collections! 
  • Collaborating with colleagues is difficult.  When they bring their students to your class it is their period off.  It's doable, but you never seem to get as much information on the class you are teaching as you want or need.
  • Budget.  You're lucky if you have one at all.  To get the supplies, books, and databases you need for your students might take grant writing, fundraising, or working with local parent groups or educational foundations.  
  • Isolation.  You'll most likely be the only person in your building who does what you do.
Who should be an elementary library media specialist?

Someone who loves small children.  Who doesn't mind being interrupted constantly.  Who has the patience of a saint.  Loving arts and crafts is a plus.  Also loving reading aloud stories to children.  Being organized is essential!  Being a classroom management deity helps too.  That one you won't know going in, but you'll need to get there.   Perfectionists should avoid this one.  Young kids disrupt plans.  If you aren't comfortable going with the flow at a moment's notice, this job will really irritate you.  If this sounds like you, then maybe you should consider being an elementary library media specialist.

High School Media Librarianship

Being an elementary library media specialist for one year was more than enough for me.  I didn't like it and so started looking immediately.  I landed a job as a high school library media specialist and stayed there longer than anywhere else thus far.

  • Still the boss.  
  • Classroom management is easier.
  • No grading.
  • You don't teach every day.
  • You may or may not need to do lesson plans.
  • You have more flexible time and can prioritize projects to your needs.
  • Collaboration with faculty and administration is much easier.
  • Budget is probably higher.
  • Still the boss.  It's all on you if you still screw it up.
  • Your library will probably be used as a study hall, computer lab, and/or testing center a lot.
  • You will be called upon to do a lot of tech stuff that may or may not have anything to do with librarianship.
  • Isolation.  You'll most likely be the only person in your building who does what you do.
Who should be a high school library media specialist?

Someone who enjoys teaching more complicated material and mentoring students.  You need to enjoy being in charge and taking the initiative on school-wide projects.  At the high school level the media specialist often works closely with administration being an almost go-between for faculty interests.  This position is for those with initiative who won't be intimidated by lack of parameters.  If this sounds like you, then maybe you should consider being a high school library media specialist.

Community College Academic Librarianship

The place where I was a high school librarian was just too far from home so I accepted a position as an academic librarian in the same town where I live.  Most academic librarian positions require at least two masters: one in librarianship and another in a specialty.  Community colleges don't always require that though and I was able to get in without an additional degree.

  • You are a specialist now.  You focus on one thing and that's all you have to worry about it.  The larger the college or university, the more this is true.
  • Prestige.  You're a professor now with all of the social perks that entails.  
  • If you have a particular area you would like to research, this kind of position will support those endeavors.
  • Classroom management is barely a thing since most of your students are adults or are about to be adults.
  • You get to teach more than as a high school media specialist but not as much as an elementary media specialist.  It's a sweet spot.
  • The content and research questions are even more complex.
  • You may also serve the public which further diversifies your daily encounters.
  • You will likely be able to take courses at that college or university for free as will your spouse and dependents.
  • Holy budget batman!  You have plenty of money to do what you need to do.
  • Collaboration is a breeze and such a delight.
  • Might get your own office.
  • Flexible schedule.
  • The prestige of professorship comes at a price.  There is a lot of ego in academia.  You will need to kowtow.
  • Tenure isn't just about how long you've worked.  It's far more complicated and definitely intimidating.
  • More chauvinistic than other forms of librarianship.  
  • Getting a position can take multiple interviews and a grueling process. 
  • Some positions will follow the "publish or perish" model which means you need to publish in order to stay.
  • Promotion means more money but your duties won't really change.   You'll always be doing the same thing.
Who should be an academic librarian?

If you like your T's crossed and your I's always dotted this might be the place for you.  Academics require precision and lots of rules following.  Drinking the koolaid is key so know and love the culture of the college or university before going in.  If you want to focus on just one kind of librarianship (cataloging, marketing, tech services etc.) this will allow you to do that.  If this sounds like you then you may want to be an academic librarian.

Public Librarianship

I always thought of myself as super-organized and competent...until I became an academic librarian.  It was just too rigid for me.  So I decided to try my hand at public librarianship.  At the writing of this post I've only been here three months, but it has been long enough for me to see the differences.

  • Very laid back atmosphere compared to education-associated librarianship.  Rules are based more on common sense and empiric evidence than inspired by ego or liability.
  • You are open to the public so the range of questions you get varies greatly.  
  • Oodles and oodles of every kind of book and DVD and audiobook, not just curriculum-related.
  • Quirky colleagues.  No seriously, public librarians are definitely delightfully weirder than any other kind.
  • Opportunities for advancement abound.
  • Benefits still good.
  • You will need to be on the reference desk a lot more than any other librarianship I have experienced.  Having someone there to answer the phone or email or chat will dictate your schedule.
  • You will need to work nights and weekends far more than education-associated librarianship.
  • Off days can sometimes be boringly quiet.  But then again you get a lot of work done those days.
  • No one knows you're a librarian.  Prestige is absent.  I keep getting called a receptionist.
  • Questions can get repetitive because no one reads signs.
  • Pay is comparatively low.
  • You'll probably have to share an office.
Who should be a public librarian?

Someone who can turn on a smile and keep it on.  You will be dealing with the public daily and customer service is number one.  Rules are more like sensible guidelines in public libraries where you need to decide what to enforce when, and you need to choose wisely.  Again, not a place for perfectionists or those with high anxiety.  A better place for diplomat types.  You never know what is going to happen in a public library!  Being kind of quirky is a plus.  If this sounds like you then you should seriously consider public librarianship.


I follow rules that make sense but I think for myself.  I love creativity and so too much structure confines me.  I prefer prioritizing my day as I see fit because I am a big self-starter.  I never need to be motivated; my work ethic is borderline obsessive and I am very high energy.  I love being in charge and making impactful decisions.  I enjoy leading teams and collaborating with others on projects.  I adore brainstorming and coming up with solutions to problems.  I like prestige, but it's not as important to me as other things.  I don't like being confined by job descriptions.  This may be considered anti-union, but I get bored easily, and so I'm always happy to help someone else do their job.  I don't mind doing more work than everyone else as long as the product is excellent.  I'm a selective perfectionist.  In some things I demand excellence.  In others, I really don't care.  I love people.  Helping people, serving people, talking to people.  Yet I'm still an introvert, so I can't be inundated with people all day every day.  And I love teaching!  Whether 1:1 or on stage in front of thousands, teaching needs to be a part of my life.

I could have been happy in any kind of librarianship because it was never about the content for me.  For me it always comes down to the people and the culture of the place.  I would have been happy staying as a high school media specialist but only to a point.  Like I said, I get bored.  I would eventually want to learn something new and when you're in a school there is no advancement unless you leave teaching and turn to administration outside of librarianship.  Few school districts are large enough to have a supervisor of just libraries.

I could not have been happy as an elementary librarian or an academic librarian.  I didn't like the rigidity of either.  Too many rules and not enough opportunity for innovation.  Neither had advancement opportunities so the boredom issue would have happened eventually anyway.

And so here I am in public librarianship.  I get to deal with people but it's not constant.  Some days more than others.  I have to work nights and weekends and summers but I get so much time off it doesn't feel onerous at all.  The pay is lower than I would like, but I'm only in an entry-level position at the moment so I'm not worried.  There will be many chances to try new things and make more money.  Policies and procedures are sensible and don't require a committee to update them.  Teaching is still a part of my life, often extemporaneous but sometimes formally planned.  And everyone is just as weird as I am.   I think I've found the kind of librarian I am.


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