This was my Google query, which returned the following definition from Oxford Languages:
“a person, typically with a degree in library science, who administers or assists in a library.”
From the first page of Google results, Merriam-Webster’s definition:
“a specialist in the care or management of a library.”
The question of what, exactly, a librarian is comes up regularly in library-related social media. Inevitably, someone will always chime in with a similar response to Google. “A librarian is someone who works in a library.”
This is an extremely short-sighted and limiting definition… and just plain wrong. After all, do we limit the locations for lawyers to law offices and doctors to medical offices? Is a lawyer “a person, typically with a law degree, who administers or assists in a law office”? Must a doctor work in a hospital or medical center to be considered a doctor?
Coming from a special library background – the non-traditional spaces that encompass corporate, medical, legal, government, non-profit, and museum & archives work – I have had many conversations around defining the term librarian. The Special Libraries Association regularly revisits whether it should change its name to either remove the L word or make it more inclusive to other information work. A membership vote in 2021 ushered in the new acronym IPSLA, Information Professionals and Special Libraries Association, though momentum and support for that name has fizzled out… for now.
Here are some of my controversial thoughts: A librarian is an information professional, but an information professional is not necessarily a librarian. A data scientist can be, but is often not, a librarian. The same goes for information architects, UX researchers, DAM (digital asset management) folks, and knowledge management specialists. How different and separate are the people who do this work when they do not consider themselves librarians? Are they a part of the profession or apart from the profession? How about those who do consider themselves librarians? Are they actually librarians?
TLDR: what makes a librarian? Is it the place of work? The degree? The approach to the work? The values?
My career includes several diverse roles. I've worked in corporate research at a tech company. I've also been involved in instructional design and educational technology at an online higher education company. Furthermore, I've handled educational programming, marketing, and program development at a non-profit library association. Finally, in user research and community building at Skilltype, a technology startup that serves the library and information professional community. In each role, I return again and again to defining librarian as someone who finds, organizes, synthesizes, and then shares information, for the purpose of helping others understand something better. There’s more to it than that, though, because in each of my roles, other people have worked similar jobs and did not consider themselves librarians.
The ALA has outlined what it considers the core values of librarianship. These are the reasons why I chose an MLIS over an MBA. A decision that makes no sense from a capitalist perspective. The values and ethics of equity, inclusion, access, social responsibility, and intellectual freedom are lamp posts on a foggy day in a world full of foggy days. At the core of a librarian’s identity is the desire to make the world a better place and to do so (as much as possible) in ways outside of models of profit and consumerism.
For me, this is what makes a librarian different from an information professional. Of course, I’m only one opinion.
How other librarians define themselves
My colleague, Claire Kandle, works as a front-end engineer on the Skilltype platform. She has an MLIS, has worked in academic and public libraries, and pursues software development training to keep herself actively engaged and learning. Does she still think of herself as a librarian? Claire says, “I suppose I do when I think about what the essence of that role means to me. It's not about the location, day-to-day work, or who signs your paycheck. It's about the desire and ability to connect people with something they are looking for. I have always enjoyed solving problems, finding information, and getting people "unstuck" so they can continue their journey….. Even though I am employing a different skill set and working more behind the scenes, the end result is that I am helping others get to where they need to be to improve their careers or increase their knowledge, and that says "librarian" to me!”
Skilltype’s COO, Christine Quirion, spent 22 years in academic libraries. She says, “As librarians, we practice a craft where we use our expertise to connect people to information so the community can meet their goals on their terms. We create experiences that make learning, creating, engaging, or participating in diverse communities possible. These might be digital experiences, collections, spaces, expert consultations, instruction, or programs. We uncover the needs of our audiences to center users at the heart of what we do, and continually ask questions to improve our services, relationships, organizations, and our practices. We are always learning and translating what we find across many audiences…. As a collective of library & information professionals, we have broad information knowledge and deep specialties that share a knowledge base and ethical framework focused on people and communities, regardless of the type of building we sit in or our titles.
I asked some of my professional colleagues in non-traditional library roles to describe what they do and whether they consider themselves librarians. Here are some responses:
Title: Records Information Manager
Description: The way I describe my job to people is ‘I help you get to your "stuff."’ I catalog boxes of files, instead of books, and search through websites and databases to find documents that may have information people are looking for. My team and I regularly evaluate how our department does things and come up with possible solutions to make things easier for us and the people we help. I still consider myself a librarian, but would be open to changing that to information professional.
Title: Digital Assets Management Specialist
Description: People usually know what a librarian is, and it is easier to explain than my actual title. "Librarian" is the word I use on LinkedIn and bios (for the algorithms). I find "librarian" in the LIS community can often imply public or academic librarianship. It feels deceiving that I'm neither. There is also an ecosystem (conferences, publications, conversations, etc.) where I'm more of an observer and supporter rather than a participant. What has helped tether me to the term "librarian" is being in library associations (but only if it's a good time, haha). In DAM, there are other LIS people, which provides some community too.
Title: Research and Reference Supervisor (Law Firm)
Description: While all the Research Specialists have a MLIS none have the word Librarian in our titles. The only folks with Library in their titles are some folks in the Library Resource Management (formerly Technical Services) team, and most of them don’t have a MLIS. I tell people I’m a Law/Legal librarian. I usually have to clarify that I work for a private law firm and that, indeed large law firms and other large corporations have librarians.
ChatGPT Joins the Discussion
As our collective interest shifts towards learning about new AI tools, I decided to ask ChatGPT what it thought about the term librarian. It first gave me a definition of the word that was location-specific:
A librarian is a professional who works in a library, an institution or facility that houses collections of books, periodicals, digital resources, and other materials, and provides access to these resources for the public or a specific user community. Librarians play a crucial role in managing and organizing library collections, helping patrons find information, conducting research, and promoting literacy and learning.
Key responsibilities of librarians typically include:
Programming and Outreach
Technology and Digital Resources
Librarians are often highly educated and may hold degrees in library science, information science, or related fields. They serve a vital role in facilitating access to information, promoting literacy, and supporting education and research within their communities.
When I followed up with, “Does a librarian have to work somewhere that houses collections?” ChatGPT responded:
Traditionally, librarians have primarily worked in institutions like libraries that house physical collections of books, periodicals, and other materials. However, the role of librarians has evolved over time, and many librarians now work in various settings beyond traditional libraries. Here are some examples:
Archives and Museums
Consulting and Information Services
Digital Content Creation
While many librarians still work in settings that house physical collections, the skills and expertise of librarians are increasingly in demand in a wide range of contexts that involve information organization, retrieval, and management, both in physical and digital formats. Therefore, librarians can have diverse career opportunities beyond traditional library spaces.
Perhaps generative AI’s ability to draw from the collected definitions and experiences of librarians will help us determine how to better understand and talk about ourselves. While we discuss the differences between a librarian and an information professional, the vast majority of people outside our field have a distinct and inaccurate mental image of what a librarian does, and a blank image for information professional. Is it possible for us to find a more comprehensive definition of our field that we can share with ourselves and the world?