One way or another: deciding which librarianship path is for you

You know you want to be a librarian, but do you know which kind of librarian you would like to be? There are many fascinating areas of specialties in librarianship, but the ultimate divide is most often between academic librarianship and public librarianship. Why do some people choose one route over the other? Why are some folks adamantly against one or the other? 

At times I have noticed a hostility between the two different camps. I  have been fortunate enough to have experience working in both types of libraries. My perspective and observations come from working six years as a Librarian’s Assistant in the Adult Services and Circulation Department at a small public library and as graduate assistant working in various academic units at a large research university, both in the midwest. Much of my perspectives also comes from talking to other librarians.  I know from my personal experience that both paths incorporate the core tenants of librarianship: service, literacy, and social justice. So, what are the differences between public librarianship and academic librarianship? How do you decide which path to embark on? Consider the following.

1. Specialties and Duties: Because an academic institution is systematically larger, it naturally encompasses a wider breadth of specialties. If you have an interest in specializing in subjects or fields such as preservation, archives, rare books, etc. you will have more opportunities working in academia. While reference work in either setting requires a bit of research, academic librarians may not only work more intimately and in-depth with patrons on research, they may also be required to conduct original research of their own, especially when trying to meet the demands of tenure. If research does not interest you, then perhaps the academic route may not be for you. I have noticed that as informational professionals, librarians are very meticulous about how they organize and present information. Roles in both public and academic librarianship require creativity as librarians produce displays and exhibits and implement programs. Ultimately I have found that in either settings, although they are designated duties, managers are always open to ideas of working differently. 

2. Working Environment: Because of the many people and inquiries librarians interact with it is hard to say that every day is the same. Some days can be slow, and some days lightning quick. I hesitate to say that academic librarians have more variety in their work, but because of the research aspect as well as the institutional structure of academia, it seems more common for academic librarians to attend and travel to more workshops and conferences and are a part of more committees. Librarians in either setting juggle many roles and duties. Libraries themselves are evolving, and with more change there is more to do. Both work environments can also potentially politics, whether in the office or externally, from the local city or the university administration. Funding also impacts the working environment as well. And as we know, libraries are impacted greatly by funding. The good news is that despite funding, and irrespective of the type of library, librarians are supportive towards each other.  

3.  Patrons: Public librarians deal with the larger public, whereas academic librarians interact with a specific demographic comprised of students, faculty, and researchers. As much as the nerd in me loves helping passionate researchers, there is something beautiful about being in contact with people from various walks of life. Because even a public university restricts its specialized services to an exclusive group. In addition, public libraries see more children, teenagers, and families through their doors. Within public libraries, services are typically divided by children, teenagers, and adults. Often times public libraries may assist community members by connecting them to resources more personal in nature, such providing information on access to health care, food, and shelter. Public librarians I have spoken to have advised learning how to help underserved populations. The patron demographics and needs may be different in each library but the interactions are always fulfilling.

In addition to this information, make sure to do some research about each of these settings. Look into the salary and the market for each. And of course, talk to an actual librarian about their experiences! Ultimately, if you can, see about working in a library to get an actual feel for yourself. Whether you can arrange for volunteer, practicum, or paid work, I cannot emphasize hands on experience enough.

My love for librarianship began as a child visiting my local public library and developed deeper through my university library as an undergraduate student. I was a user of the library in both settings, but I also worked in both settings and was exposed to the environment “behind the scenes” for a bigger picture. If you are like me, you feel you cannot go wrong by picking one setting over the other.

1 reply

  1. I think this is a great article with many excellent observations of how public and academic library work are similar/different. I will note that I have also worked in both settings, but my experience has been much different than described above. My public library experience was at a large regional library, where departments and roles were quite specific and librarians were “specialists” in something. However, my academic library experience has been at small liberal arts type colleges, where you have to wear many hats and be a generalist, and research isn’t quite as important as teaching/student engagement. So, I would recommend to new grads to consider both the size and type of institution you are looking at when deciding on your best fit!

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