The Diverse Knowledge of Librarians

In This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, Marilyn Johnson says that she first became interested in writing about librarians while researching a book about obituaries. She noticed that librarians always had the most interesting obituaries she read, ranging from a librarian who sailed the coast of Maine to a librarian who automated the Library of Congress’s map catalog.

This is one of my favorite descriptions of librarians; they know a little bit about everything. Ask a librarian how to fix a leaky faucet and she might be able to tell you what kind of wrench to use. Ask a librarian how to help care for a sick relative and he might share a story about how he had to do the same thing. Librarians are surrounded by books, on every kind of topic from obscure to everyday. (Take a look at @HCcataloging) And they love to read and find out more. So chances are, while librarians are pretty knowledgeable about their own chosen specialties, they are also educated about topics outside (sometimes very far outside) these areas too.

In the spirit of diversifying my own knowledge (and taking something of a summer vacation from my required classes,) I decided to use my elective class to take Museum Collection Development. The class was created by a Queens College alum who currently works as a registrar and archivist at the New York Transit Museum. The class gives a general view of what goes into picking and managing artifacts in a museum’s collection. Some aspects of collection development that are covered throughout the semester are creating a collection development policy, preservation, cataloging, and accessioning and deaccessioning materials. One of my favorite aspects of the class so far has been creating a fake class museum about New York City’s subway musicians and accessioning “artifacts” as if for a real museum.

Though Museum Collection Development may not be directly related to School Media Studies, the connection between museums and libraries is strong. Taking Museum Collection Development has given me a museum perspective on many topics and questions that libraries also face.  Digital preservation and figuring out ways to best sustain digital information is as vital in museums as it is in libraries, as is preservation of physical objects. Museums also face questions of how to best organize and catalog information for use by researchers and the general public. And just like libraries, museums must figure out how to do all this with limited budgets and limited staff. Taking this class has taught me that libraries are not alone in their desire to serve and educate the public and that a librarian’s support network spans far wider than just the people who work at libraries.

If you have some free space in your schedule (which is certainly a luxury) I strongly suggest picking the class that is the most random, obscure or in complete contrast to your chosen path or specialty.  Librarians are well-informed about so many things and taking advantage of the abundance of knowledge to be gained through LIS courses is one of the best ways to make sure this remains a hallmark of our profession.

18 replies

  1. Hurrah! That book is one of the major things that pushed me towards library school, I think. It’s also just a fabulously interesting read for anyone who likes good nonfiction.

    I agree that everyone should try for an elective that’s seemingly outside of their career/focus/interest. I’m youth services, and now I’m considering whether I’d like to take social informatics, an archives course in preserving cultural heritage, or something else, and quite frankly I’m sure that whichever (or all) that I take will be really eye-opening and relevant, because whatever you take in an elective, you can use that knowledge to show your future employers how YOU want to incorporate museum stuff into school libraries or coding into management or archives into children’s librarianship. I think my favorite part of librarianship is how you get to be a mini-expert on so many things.


    • I think that’s my favorite part too! Talking to librarians (and book sellers too!) is so interesting because of the the wide variety of experiences and information they bring to the table


  2. That assignment about subway musicians sounds awesome!

    I really like your point about taking a range of courses, even if you are pretty sure what type of librarianship/information professional you want to be. Although specialization is important, especially for highly technical types of jobs, I agree that librarians should have a very broad base of knowledge in order to be able to understand how to find information in different contexts.

    My internship supervisor recently recommended that book to me as well, and it’s currently sitting on my to-read-soon pile.


    • Thanks for your comment, Paul. It’s a great book and it covers a pretty broad spectrum of the aspects of a librarian’s job. It’s divided into distinct sections too, so you can read a few sections when you have some free time without needing to read it straight through. It’s a good book to read while in school because you can put it down when things get busy and the pick it back up again when things slow down.


  3. I read that book right before i got accepted into my library school program. I also plan on taking some type of crazy elective once I am able to do so.


  4. I suggest keeping tags on the “special topics” classes that are offered every semester or quarter. Usually these classes are focused on a professor’s research area of choice and are very unique.

    In the spring I took a special topics seminar on Personal Information Management and this fall I’m taking another special topics class on Social Media. One of the weirdest special topics classes I’ve seen so far is the Information Behavior of Online Dating (Being offered this fall and students have to create their own dating profile before classes begin!).


    • The idea of special topics seminars sound awesome. I haven’t heard of that at my school but it seems like a great way to highlight the unique expertise of professors.

      If you do end up taking Information Behavior of Online Dating you should write a guest post about it. I am very intrigued!


      • Sadly, I didn’t sign up for the Online Dating class. It sounded very interesting, but the Social Media class won out since it was both interesting and could be applied to my career path. I however DO know several people in the class and pretty much everyone in the program was intrigued by the idea. I think multiple people (even people who work in our department’s student services office) are demanding weekly updates to the class.


  5. Every library school student should take at least one class about archives, for a few reasons:

    * Archival theory is helpful for librarians who end up working with collections of unique material (think IR or data librarians).

    * Librarians who end up working in archives can do a lot of damage if they don’t have the proper training or education. Many, many archivists have stories of archival collections ruined because a well-meaning librarian decided to arrange them by subject, like library collections.

    * You might like it! I was never that interested in history, but I love working with archival materials.


    • I like your second point about knowing how to work with archives. My professor told us a funny story about how she periodically found Cheetos in a museum storage room left by engineers who were working in the building. She had to educate the engineers about basic rules of archives and museum storage in order to keep artifacts in good condition. Also, I agree, I think archiving actually ends up being far more interesting than some people might originally think.


  6. I undertook an optional module in web applications development as part of my MSc at City University London which involved learning to build database driven websites from scratch using HTML/CSS, PHP and MySQL. The module definitely threw you in at the deep end but I feel I’ve learned skills that are highly beneficial and will (hopefully!) make me more employable. It was also nice to do something very practical in a mostly academic course.


  7. What sealed my decision to apply to a MLIS program was a speech given (wish I recall which!) that stated that librarianship was the last refuge of Renaissance Men – where everything you know/do will be useful. Through my program, I took a lot of courses in incredibly interesting and diverse topics, from computational linguistics to UX to info theory to digipres (on top of usual fare, of course). It was wonderful – I loved what I was learning, and I felt that I would be ready to tackle all those fascinating new roles for libraries.

    Having graduated, I’m finding that the expectation on the hiring side is that you picked up some extremely narrow skillset, and lacking it, you’re sunk. Archives jobs require having EAD finding aids (I skipped that class for the infinitely more useful NLP); digital library jobs require professional dev exp (I only code casually) or experience in that shop’s CMS (no matter how incredibly niche). I can’t even look at any other fields, as without intern/indie exp, I might as well just bin my application.

    The sentiment in this post is wonderful, but I really wish that it was true. In a world where an ad boasts about “casting a wide net” and requires MLIS+MS/PhD, GIS-in-life-sciences exp, an alphabet soup of standards, instructional exp, and the usual team-player/project-manager/prof-dev boilerplate, though…it’s hard to recommend becoming a Heinleinian man when the field seems to favor insects.


    • “What sealed my decision to apply to a MLIS program was a speech given (wish I recall which!) that stated that librarianship was the last refuge of Renaissance Men – where everything you know/do will be useful.”

      That. Right there. Yes! My goal in life. 🙂


    • I completely understand your frustration. I guess because I am in school I can still be a little more idealistic about the role of a librarian. I found I was in a similar situation after graduating from my under graduate program. I went to a liberal arts college, where I felt like I got a well-round and complete education, but then when I started to apply for jobs it was much harder because I didn’t have specific skills to put on my resume.


  8. Although I have been working as a FT archivist for the past 6 years, I learned a lot from my library school electives, some of which were only tangentially related to archives. My research paper on prison librarianship for a library history class, the annotated bibliography I wrote on francophone literature in translation for a humanities reference services class, the research paper on the 18th century book trade in New York – all of these projects made me a better archivist because I understand the various perspectives of my researchers.

    The important thing is that whatever topics or subjects interest you, the most vital specialty of all is finding/providing information sources for your users. Period. Remember that your role is not exclusively supplying users with answers but helping them figure out a strategy for answering their questions, formulating that inchoate question in the first place, or anticipating questions before they are asked.

    As a student you have to strike a balance between the fundamentals and the electives.

    Also, I completely agree with Rebecca’s assessment of archives and history (* You might like it! I was never that interested in history, but I love working with archival materials.). History was not at the top of my list as an undergraduate, but I love working with archival researchers — not all of whom are historians.


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