What Is a Librarian: An Unsolicited Response

I’m actually really rather nervous to write this post, though I knew that someday I would want to do so. In order to help keep me relaxed (and even happy), I’m peppering my thoughts with pictures of cute baby animals. After all, cute baby animals make everything better.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling better – thank you adorable puppy!

Last week I received an incredible email from the wonderful Bryce of Bryce Don’t Play. She asked me to read a preview of a blog post she wrote. I think that I surprised both her and myself with my response, which went a little like this:


Because of my reaction, I realized that the time had come for me to share with the world something that I have tried to keep on the down low for fear of how my work would be perceived, and how I might be treated within this profession that I love:

I have a BA in English Literature. That’s my only degree beyond high school.

I’ve never shied away from telling anyone the truth…if they’ve asked. I’m proud of my education, my position, and my life. But I’ve heard stories that have both saddened and horrified me from fellow non-degreed librarians, and so I’ve not wanted to risk having those experiences myself.

Let me tell you a bit about the library that my Director and I have cultivated over the past 5 years – both because we’re proud of our library and our staff, and because I think that you’ll understand my thoughts and feelings on this topic a bit better.

At our library, our staff has a wide range of educational backgrounds – and you know what? I truly believe that we’re stronger for it. We hire based on what is best for our library, community, and team. Both my Director and I LOVE surrounding ourselves with people who love to learn, bring different skill sets, and challenge us to both do and be better.

We’re delighted to have MILS students join our team. They almost always bring an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm with them. For most, this is their first job in an actual library, and it’s a great honor to share with them the possibilities of what libraries can both be and do.

We also love to watch members of our team succeed, grow, and surpass us in the field. It’s the best.

We also expect our staff to be as cross-trained as possible, because you never know when someone is going to come up with a way to revolutionize a process that we’ve let become a that’s how we’ve always done it sort of thing. Plus, we’re a small staff, and we don’t want any of our services to come to a screeching halt when someone takes a vacation, is sick, etc.

Every team member who has moved on to a full time job at another library? I am so frigging proud to have been part of their careers, and I hope that they bring with them a respect for those of us who, for whatever reason, have not pursued our MILS.

Finally, we know that the public views us all as librarians – whether or not we have earned the official title – and therefore we want to conduct ourselves in a way that would make everyone in our field proud.  And lord knows, there are times (like almost all of the time) that I feel like I need to work incredibly hard to live up to the standards that librarians are supposed to have.

Are you a fellow non-degreed librarian? Share your story in the comments – I know that I’m not the only one who’d love to hear from you!

24 thoughts on “What Is a Librarian: An Unsolicited Response

  1. I am a fellow non-degreed library worker with a BA in English Literature. I have been working in Youth Services for almost four years now, leading programs and summer reading at my library. I have also visited many neighboring libraries. I have always felt my ideas and opinions were valued by my coworkers, managers, directors, and fellow librarians across the state. I think where I work, there are almost as many non-degreed librarians as there are degreed ones. My experience has always been positive. I even started for my MLS and dropped out early on. Still nothing has changed.

    I love your site. :)

  2. Thank you for your post! My first “real” job out of college was as a Librarian. After I had graduated with my Bachelors, that is. I moved away from that city and many years later have gone back to work in a library, but I am no longer titled Librarian. I do a lot of the same work, patrons refer to me as a Librarian, but it feels weird to contradict them so I don’t. Maybe one day I will rise again to the title!

    • Thank *you* for sharing your story!

      I used to correct patrons a lot too, but every time their eyes would glaze over, and/or they’d say something negative. And yeah – I find it very uncomfortable to either correct them or not say anything. Sort of a catch 22.

  3. I’m rather new to the library field, having only been on the job as a juvenile services librarian for a little over 18 months. My bachelor’s degree is in business education, but my “life” degree was a 26-year stint as a home daycare provider. I helped raise over 100 children and read thousands of books to my kiddos during that time. I believe these experiences gave me the skills I need to interact with and nurture the kids that come into our library.

    I had (and still have) a lot of holes in my repetoire, where I’ve had to go online and find out how to do things, like choosing books for storytime and coming up with library displays. Thank goodness one of the first blogs I found was this one, which encouraged and motivated me immensely. That,, along with several Facebook pages for librarians, have given me a network of experienced librarians who are so willing to share with me.

    I do believe that all librarians should have some type of secondary degree and that they should be technology savvy and mostly, have a love of reading. Other than that, a specific degree doesn’t seem necessary to me.

  4. Amen sista….BA in Art & minor in Business Management. Now I’m the system’s Children’s Manager. I have three children, so getting an MILS has not been an option do to money & time. I also enjoyed the Bryce don’t play article! Thank you!

  5. I think the empowerment and support that you speak of are key. We all need to do that for each other. I have so many amazing colleagues that I value – and really have no idea with most, beyond those I hired, whether they have an MLIS or not. To me, we are all caring, passionate librarians and we make mischief and magic together for kids. I admire everyone who learns and adjusts and evolves each day – and a degree makes little difference in that basic powerful skill. By naming ourselves a librarian, degreed or not, we stand up for the good we do and the passion we have for libraries. And THAT’S a powerful thing!

  6. Yes! I too have a BA in English Literature. Getting an library degree was not an option for me because the only place in Michigan to get a degree at the time was not close enough to where I lived and worked. I have worked in libraries since I was 18 years old (I am now 50!) and feel that my experience working has been my education!

    • Thank you, Rhonda! I didn’t work in a library until my late 30’s – I wish that I had realized at 18 that libraries were where I was meant to be. :)

  7. I was a professional librarian in youth-services for almost 10 years before going “back to school” to start my MLS. I was only able to go to grad school even then due to my library board voting in a VERY generous tuition-reimbursement program. Prior to that, I had awesome mentors and excellent training at my branch, system, consortium, and state level to complement my bachelor’s degree and experience. If anyone wants to say that I was not a “real librarian” for those years, or that my amazing colleagues doing amazing work now without MLS’s are not “real librarians,” well that person can meet me at the flagpole after school, because them’s fightin’ words.

    I see it this way: if you have a library degree, it’s valuable and hard-earned, and you are a real librarian, even if you’re currently working in another field. If you are doing the work and filling the role of librarian for your community, it’s valuable and important and you are a real librarian, with or without the official graduate degree.

  8. I have a BA in Art History, and I did go back later to get an MLS. However, i never wanted to work in a public library. I wanted to do digital stuff in an academic library with the cool kids. After graduation I ended up as the Visual Materials Archivist at a state library. I was SO BORED. 5 years ago circumstances led me to move states and I applied to for a youth services job at a small library. I took zero classes about Children’s lit, YA lit, or public libraries. I got the job through sheer luck and the fact that I had a young child and read to him A LOT, and had tons of experience working with kids, mostly through babysitting. I knew absolutely nothing about any part of my job, but thanks to conferences, continuing ed, and the INTERNET, I’m now a kick-ass children’s librarian. Did I need an MLS for this job – well, it was a requirement – but the route I took during my MLS had nothing to do with what I’m doing now. My director and I are degreed, and our two other staff members are not. One only has a high school education, but she runs the ILL, does processing, and she can recommend the perfect book to any of our adult patrons. I think if you have the right attitude and good co-workers, everything works out. I never correct the patrons when they refer to our non-degreed staff as “librarians” because, well, they work in the library and therefor are librarians!!
    And I’m done…also, i love the sloth photo.

    • Your story is absolutely amazing, Erin – and I’m incredibly grateful that you shared it. (And yes – the sloth photo fills me with joy)

  9. I have a BA and MA in political science, but I have found myself at the head of youth services at a smallish library. I completely agree with your appreciation of a well-rounded staff! I call myself a librarian, because that’s what I do. Pfffft.

  10. Thanks so much for this post!!

    I have a BA in English, and worked as a page at a public library as a high school student and while earning the degree. I was at that library for nearly six years, but there just wasn’t anywhere to move up. I landed at a much smaller library in a nearby town as . . . the director!

    It’s still a part-time position, but I love getting to be involved in a little bit of everything. Some days I feel woefully unprepared and wonder what my board was thinking, hiring someone just a couple years out of college. But everyone has been very positive. Only a few people have asked me about my masters, and only one or two has been a bit judgemental about it.

    I still have lots to learn, but most of it I think is more real life skills than school skills. At this point, I can’t get excited about taking on a ton of student debt.

    • ::fist bumps fellow BA in Englisher::

      Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story (well, all except those people who poo-pooed you).

      My Director has her BA in Library Science, so she at least has some schooling in this area, but she’d be the first to admit how unprepared she was to step up into Directorship – but she’s managed :)

      Shoot me an email (hafuboti@gmail.com) if you’d like me to pass along your contact info to my boss in case you ever have a question that you’re struggling to find an answer to.

  11. HI! As everyone has said, this is a great post! I enjoyed seeing my feelings and thoughts written by someone else. My background is in Mass Communications. I have always felt the need to do story times in Spanish. I had the chance to create a group in a tiny library in a town, where my husband had moved our family for a year. The Friends of that local library thought I would do a good job because I speak Spanish. The one thing they did not know is that I’ve always been hungry for an audience and to encourage Spanish speaking kids to read. That library called the program a success (though I have to admit most of the people who attended I had to haul in my small toyota corolla) When we left that town, I left my heart at that small library. A few weeks later I was told that the local library in the town where we were now living was looking for someone to do story time for toddlers. I was extremely nervous because my accent, well, my accent is kind of funny. I also knew that this new town had tried voting English as their official language the year before. I had a million excuses for not applying to this new job. Deep inside my heart, I knew I wanted to apply for it. The children, the songs, the rhymes, the books, oh so tempting. How could I not try. So I did, I applied for it. I was interviewed by two older librarians; one had been a librarian for 35 years. She was retiring and I was supposed to fill in her shoes. Two days later I got a call from my city saying that they were going to hire me. My husband thought that this would be my new hobby. He told me that I could work for a year or two if I wanted. It is a part time job after all! For almost 9 years my family has seen me evolve from a part time story time to a full time “librarian”. I am tempted to move on into a place where I can use my Spanish more; but being in this place has been like the one call I was meant to follow. I know I am never going to be “the boss” but I am happy with being the lady who they call “Miss Kitty” or “Miss Brenda Show” . The parents don’t know that it is truly their kids’ show. When I stand in front of everyone, and I see their smiles, their reactions to the songs, rhymes, books.It is what keeps me dreaming, it is what keeps me want to continue to have a big audience. I started out with about four kids and four parents. I have an average of 80 people in each Toddler Time. When moms come back over and over and over again.. I know, this is not my job; this is my call. I am a little shy when I go to our annual Library Association Meeting. This year I got to present some of my favorite books to 500 beautiful librarians. At the end of that program, I had a local school librarian encouraging me to continue working as good as I’ve done it. What a treat! So fellow non librarians living in a librarian life… you are not alone! Thank you for this wonderful post!

    • Wow! Brenda – thank you so much for sharing your heart and your experiences.

      Have you ever thought about creating a storytime blog focused on incorporating Spanish into storytimes? You might not be able to present those storytimes, but you could help inspire others to do so!

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