Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Larry Hardesty, University of Nebraska at Kearney;
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell
, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Hoeth, Florida Gulf Coast University
Vol. 25, No. 6 July 2005

What Do Librarians Do?

by Mignon Adams,
with Input from Barbara Fister and Steven Bell

Do you like books? Do you like people? Then you could be a librarian.” This is the message of a 1947 film, The Librarian, now available on the web. If your mental picture of a librarian is a pleasant lady handing you a good book to read, then you need to update your image: librarians now teach, they guide users to credible information, they are computer professionals who care about their users, and they are responsible for carrying out complex tasks undreamed of by the nice lady smiling across a desk sixty years ago. Instead of being isolated behind a desk, a librarian in today’s academic library has a view of the entire campus. To do a good job, he or she needs to know about pedagogy, sophisticated online searching techniques, website evaluation and authentication, and a publishing market far different from an industry that sold paper copies only.

Librarians as Strategic Planners and Thinkers

Librarians can often see the big institutional picture more easily than other groups on campus. Perhaps this is because they interact daily with both students and faculty, serving as a core resource for every major on campus, including undergraduate and graduate programs, and for all faculty research. Or perhaps it’s because their profession has been completely reinvented during the past twenty years. They have been able to make the necessary changes only by being keenly aware of their users’ expectations and meeting them. Whatever the cause, they are able more easily than other groups with a narrower focus to understand how enrollment fluctuations, success at fundraising, and other external forces directly affect them.

Professional library groups also look beyond their own discipline. The American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of College and Research Libraries have taken up the causes of intellectual freedom, copyright, dissemination of scholarly communication, and the right to privacy, all causes only tangentially related to the day-to-day running of a library. The loudest protests about the U. S. Patriot Act came from the spokespersons for library organizations

Librarians as Educators

Librarians teach. They teach students at the reference desk on a one-to-one basis, ranging from how to write a citation for a website according to six different style manuals, to how to use the tracking feature in Word, to how to identify the most important studies in birdsong analysis. But beyond the reference desk, librarians work closely with faculty in developing assignments, delivering guest lectures, teaching and co-teaching classes. They create tutorials and links to make online courses work.

Many institutions (and their accrediting agencies) want their students to be information literate. Someone who is information literate can define an information need, locate relevant information, evaluate it, and use it effectively and correctly. And this process is what librarians have been prepared to teach. By necessity, librarians must understand the nature and construction of all the disciplines that are taught on their campuses. For example, at many universities, the ACS-required chemistry literature course is co-taught by a chemist and a librarian. The chemist brings his or her deep content knowledge to the course, while the librarian (whose background may be in any discipline) is responsible for teaching appropriate source selection and good search strategies.

Research strategies are best taught in conjunction with a need to do research. The traditional freshman term paper does not address the need for students to learn about the structure and tools of their particular disciplines. At some campuses, librarians have developed credit courses that are customized to individual majors, so that students learn appropriate skills at the time those skills are needed. Western Washington University offers a "Research Paper Tutorial," for 1 to 4 credits, designed to be taken at the same time that a student is enrolled in a writing-intensive course.

Increasingly instruction occurs online. Librarians are responsible for designing interfaces that make it easy for students and faculty to find the resources they need. Working with other faculty, librarians can help them locate relevant educational materials from library holdings and then also integrate them into course management software such as Blackboard or WebCT. At many institutions librarians are creating tutorials or modules that can be incorporated into many different courses, completely or partially online. Pennsylvania State University has made readily available a number of modules that are available for faculty members to easily insert into their course management software. Others, like Philadelphia University, customize modules on demand for Blackboard courses.

While students who plagiarized 20 years ago at least had to retype the paper before turning it in, students today can easily cut and paste from the Internet which makes plagiarism a huge problem now. Many librarians work closely with other faculty to identify plagiarism (if a student can find it on the Internet, a librarian can find it faster and more easily) and to develop assignments that make plagiarism much more difficult. The answer to discouraging plagiarism is not to develop more and more sophisticated methods of “catching” students, but to make better and better assignments. Librarians have many suggestions, and those suggestions can be found on the web.

Librarians often teach faculty as well as students. They conduct workshops on issues of importance in teaching, on topics such as fighting plagiarism, fair use principles of copyright, or using new technology. As they do with students, librarians also work with faculty one-on-one to design assignments, teach a new database, or make them aware of new technology.

So the librarian who in 1947 needed only to know her collection well in order to match up a reader and a book, in 2005 needs to know the principles of pedagogy and have the skills to develop both in-class and online materials. By keeping abreast of what’s happening with both faculty and students, he or she can find the best time and method to teach both groups what they need to know.

Librarians as Guides in the Darkest Internet

Before the web, students often found it difficult to find any information on a given topic. Then, a major task for librarians was to help students search through indexes, reference books, bibliographies, and catalogs to find enough materials. But now, students are submerged in information cascading from each word they enter into a Google search screen. Much of what they find is misinformation. Unfortunately, students lack, as does the general public, the critical skills to discriminate between that which is credible and that which is indeed incredible. No sooner had the web made its impact than librarians were developing criteria, checklists, tutorials, and lesson plans for evaluating the credibility of websites. Enter "evaluating websites" in an Internet search engine and nearly all of the pages that result from the search were done by librarians.

The vast majority of students believe that they know how to search the Internet. However, their most typical approach is to type a string of words (not even concepts) into a Google search box. With a database as large as Google’s, typing in almost anything, including misspelled words and
mistaken concepts, will yield results. Librarians understand the principles of effective searching, they know how to determine key concepts and the way they should be entered into major search engines, and they know to be aware of Google’s limitations. “Beyond Google,” a workshop taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presents not only Google’s advanced features but also other search engines and the circumstances under which they should be used. Many other institutions offer similar workshops.

Traditionally librarians have served a screening purpose. Library collections are “selected;” books and journals are chosen on the basis of faculty recommendation or reviews or knowledge of authors and publishers. Similarly, electronic resources and public sites whose links appear on the library’s home page have been selected. Those who choose the library’s links as their starting point are more likely to find credible information.

Librarians still need to know how to select and organize books and paper journals. But added on to those skills are a host of new ones as they learn to organize their own electronic materials as well as to teach users how to navigate and understand the immense world of the Internet.

Librarians as Computer Professionals

Computer technology began to transform libraries over 40 years ago, when library holdings information was transferred into national databases. Since that time, computer skills have been essential for librarians. They graduate from programs that are named, “information science” or “information studies” and not “library science.” All new graduates can create web pages, manipulate basic software packages, and create databases. They understand how search engines work. But more importantly, they know that websites, software, and databases must be used by people whose computer expertise is limited. Librarians take the time to write clear directions, organize workshops, and sit patiently with users until they can understand what they are doing.

Librarians have been quick to see the potential of new technology to deliver information services to their users. They moved quickly from dial-up text databases to stand-alone CD-ROMs to web-based products. They were using integrated system software before such use became ubiquitous on college campuses. As online journals became available, individual librarians developed software for handling them, long before library automation companies realized the need for such control. New technology continues to be harnessed for library uses, such as the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) newsfeeds that Georgia State University and others have created to let their faculty and students keep up with both library news and news in their discipline.

“Librarians are skilled enough to make what they do seem easy.…Requisite skills include the future sense of a visionary, the price comparison perseverance of a shopaholic, the bargaining skills of a used-car salesperson, and the technical savviness of a computer professional....”

The library’s web page is one of the most important tools that librarians are responsible for. It can be thought of as a gateway or entrance, but it is more than that. A hundred years ago, techniques were developed to organize and provide access to library collections, including card catalogs, classification systems, and periodical indexes. Now, the library’s website serves to organize electronic materials, the resources of choice by college students. New services that librarians are incorporating into their websites include software that creates alphabetical lists of journals, even those embedded in packages, and “federated searching,” that allows a user to execute one search that will locate materials in the many unrelated databases that a library may subscribe to.

Librarians are skilled enough to make what they do seem easy. When a resource appears on your desktop, it may have been a long and tortuous path to get it there. Requisite skills include the future sense of a visionary, the price comparison perseverance of a shopaholic, the bargaining skills of a used-car salesperson, and the technical savviness of a computer professional to make everything work not only today but also tomorrow.

Making a Journal Collection Available: An Example

As an example, let’s take a look at what was involved at one library in making one large, well-known, but held nameless here, collection of scientific journals available to its users.

Location and Selection. By staying in touch with their faculty, the librarians were aware that they wanted more online access to their literature. Scholars and researchers think of specific journals when they think about the resources they want access to. They don’t think of publishers’ packages or aggregators, but this is the way that a high percentage of journals are currently sold. By diligently looking, the librarians were able to identify one publishers’ package that contained many titles the faculty wanted. They arranged for a demonstration, and asked, begged, and asked again for faculty look at it and give their opinion. Those who did were enthusiastic about its content.

Purchasing. The next step was to investigate the various ways that the package could be bought. Most libraries belong to at least one consortium, often more, that works out cooperative arrangements with vendors. In this case, the librarians quickly found that they would need to go directly to the publisher.

There was no sticker price, as often there is not. The vendor was contacted, and a prolonged negotiation began. The library wanted access without a password anywhere on campus, a portal for students off campus, and the right to mount individual articles on course pages, accessible only to students enrolled in the course. Each of these requests had to be negotiated separately, with the license going back to the vendors’ attorneys several times. Included within the vendors’ price were various fees, discounts, annual increases, and collection configurations, which gave the vendor opportunity to justify a final price in different ways. After three months, agreement was reached on both sides and the library was asked to keep the final price confidential.

Making the journals accessible. Once the contract was signed and delivered, the vendor collected certain technical information from the library and a short time later made the contracted-for resources reachable from campus. But so that users could access the journals both on and off campus, and could look for individual titles, the library had to configure a proxy server (so that outside users could be identified as being part of the university) and enter each title into its online list of journals. Finally, the library announced to the campus community that the resources were available and promoted their use through email announcements, class sessions, and workshops.

Troubleshooting. Unfortunately, vendors are unable to master the complexities well enough to assure that their customers have trouble-free access. Resources available today can vanish inexplicably tomorrow. Random spot-checking and feedback from users alert librarians when suddenly one particular title from an expensive collection is not available so they can contact the vendor and bring back the missing link. Local difficulties may also arise. At one point, this institution’s IT department changed the university’s numerical Internet addresses with one week’s notice. Librarians scrambled to notify vendors and set up again all the required connections.

So that’s what it takes to put a resource on your desktop. It takes someone who is familiar with online publishing and with the nuances and vagaries of dealing with different publishers and different pricing algorithms. That person must have the personal skills requisite to drive a hard bargain. Needed next is someone with the technical skills to interact with the vendor’s technical staff, configure a server and software, and troubleshoot problems. And finally someone is needed who can promote use and teach faculty and students how and why to use any particular resource.

How to Get the Most out of Librarians

Most libraries still have books. But the librarians on your campus need to know about much more than books. They are an important part of your institution’s teaching mission. At the beginning of the Internet revolution, there was some speculation that librarians would no longer be necessary. Instead, librarians are in the forefront at teaching users how to use the web and how to distinguish its gold from that which may not only be useless dross but dangerous.

Today’s questions for the prospective librarian might well be, “Do you like people? Are you comfortable with computers? Are you intrigued with discerning truth and value? Can you deal with ever changing work requirements? Then you could be a librarian.”

What do you know about the librarians on your campus? Is your image still of the pleasant lady who helped you so much when you wrote your dissertation? If so, then it’s time that you learned what information professionals can do for you. While the librarians should be telling you this themselves, they often fail to promote who they are, what they can do, and how their jobs have changed.

You may feel, for example, that everybody but you can find what is needed on the Internet. Or, like our students, you may think that you’re an expert searcher. Regardless of which end of the Internet scale you fall on, you might want to find out from a librarian the limitations of Google and how using another search engine can double your chances of finding what you’re looking for. You can learn to use all of Google’s features, such as Google Scholar, which will tell you (for free) who cited you and what nearby libraries have a copy of a book you wrote. Google’s satellite maps can show you an aerial photograph of your neighborhood. A librarian can walk you through all these intricacies.

Appoint librarians to committees. They are popular members. They attend meetings regularly, do their homework, and are often outside traditional turf wars.

They can serve as an important bridge between student services professionals and faculty. Like the student services staff, librarians see students outside of class and on nights and weekends; like the faculty, librarians work with students to meet their academic responsibilities. Not just you, but the rest of the campus community can take advantage of librarians’ abilities when they know “what academic librarians do” to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Thanks and appreciation to Steven Bell and Barbara Fister for generously sharing their many ideas and gracious willingness to provide feedback. (And to Steven for pointing out “The Librarian.”)

—Mignon Adams is the Director of Library and Information Services at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Email: m.adams@usip.edu

Resources of Interest

The Internet Archive offers, in addition to archived websites, open source movies.
Enter The Librarian as a title. http://www.archives.org/movies

Librarians on Plagiarism:

Le Moyne College: http://www.lemoyne.edu/library/plagiarism/

Tutorial from Acadia University: http://library.acadiau.ca/tutorials/plagiarism/

Alternative Assignments from Columbia Gorge Community College:

Librarians on Web Evaluation:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, from New Mexico State University:

Evaluating Web Sites from UC Berkeley: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/Evaluate.html

Librarians on Search Engines:

Bare Bones 101, from University of South Carolina at Beaufort:

Second Generation Searching on the Web, from SUNY Albany:

Tool Kit for the Expert Web Searcher, Library & Information Technology Association: http://www.ala.org/ala/lita/litaresources/toolkitforexpert/toolkitexpert.htm

Librarians on RSS (Real Simple Syndication):

Georgia State University’s RSS: http://www.library.gsu.edu/news/

Librarians on Information Literacy

Standards from the Association of College and Research Libraries:

Information Literacy and the Library, from Pennsylvania State University:

National Forum on Information Literacy: http://www.infolit.org/related_sites/#College_and_University_Programs

Library Websites

College Library Website of the Month: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrlbucket/cls/websiteofthemonth/index.htm

Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 25, no.6  © 2005 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: apdougherty@CompuServe.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified: July 2005


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