What librarians do

Borrowing books can and does help people transform their lives, but so do/does:

– ICT classes for people who don’t know how to word process, search for jobs online, use the internet safely and securely, use online facilities such as paying council tax etc. online
– Recreational activities such as family history research
– Book groups – as a leisure activity, or an activity to support mental health and wellbeing, or rehabilitation
– Reminiscence therapy that supports people with dementia
– Homework classes for children who need extra support outside school hours
– Summer reading challenges that encourage children to continue to read and develop their literacy skills during the summer holidays
– Bibliotherapy in its various forms
– Literacy support for adults with low literacy levels
– Support from specialist staff for people who need to find information that isn’t available on the internet (there is a lot of information that isn’t available on the internet)
– Support and information for small businesses
– Information and support to engage with local and national democratic processes – helping people to understand how government works and providing people with the information they need to make informed choices about the decisions they are increasingly asked to make about the way their local area/the country is run

These are some of the ways libraries serve their core purpose. This work is done by expert, trained, qualified librarians and cannot be replicated by volunteers. Here’s a list of some of the things public librarians are expected to do in their day to day work, that volunteers may not expect to have to do, be willing to do, or are likely to be unable to do without training:

  • Dealing With Library Users:
    – Suggesting a book for anyone from an 8 year old boy who never reads to a 70 year old woman who has read everything;
    – Being unfazed by complex enquiries which could be of a sensitive nature;
    – Understanding how to help people with computers who have zero confidence/experience and believe they can’t use them;
    – Dealing with abusive visitors;
    – Dealing with young people behaving badly – police have been called to library branches when young people have been climbing on bookshelves, causing problems, refusing to leave premises etc;
    – Dealing sensitively with people who have mental health problems or learning disabilities and may be challenging to help properly;
    – Keeping user information confidential;
    – Huge training requirement around legal/ethical issues;
    – Understanding the issues around safeguarding children and the elderly;
    – Providing a safe, friendly space that welcomes everyone;
    – Directing homeless people to the nearest shelter;
    – Helping people with little or no English to use the library service by translating, using translation services or taking special care and attention to ensure people understand information;
    – Collecting knives and guns;
  • Helping People Find Information:
    – Information literacy i.e. teaching people how to research, study and helping people develop lifelong learning skills essential for an informed citizenship;
    – Understanding what users need and how they go about finding it (and working out where the problems are);
    –  Teaching people how to search effectively;
    – Helping people organise information effectively;
    – Helping people assess which information is reliable, for example the NHS expect patients to use online sources to find out about healthcare, but a lot of information on the internet is not reliable and can misinform people;
    – Showing people how to find information about legal issues;
    – Helping businesses find business information;
    – Helping people research their family history or local history;
    – Unearthing the needed information from the mounded heaps of print and electronic, free and subscription services, efficiently and accurately;
    – Ensuring that less easy-to-find materials are available for particular groups – community langs, LGBT, people with/ disabilities etc;
    – Being able to interpret research requests – working out what people want when they’re not sure how to explain
    – Providing pointers on free and paid resources;
    – Knowing how to do proper subject searches and suggest unthought of sources of information;
    – Signposting to a huge range of services &say what they can offer: advice/help on immigration, debt, tax, legal, benefits, housing;
    – Providing specialist information i.e. market research/patents/EU/law/health;
    – Helping people if the library doesn’t have what they need;
    – Understanding the need for access and negotiating access to information that may be blocked by council filters;
  • Research Help:
    – Teaching people how to research properly;
    – Current awareness services, all types of research;
    – Personal training sessions on resources;
    – Filtering materials for relevance;
  • Internet/Technology Support:
    – Teaching people to use the internet;
    – Helping people set up email accounts;
    – Showing people how to use online job boards;
    – Showing people how to use online council & government services;
    – Teaching people to use online resources e.g. e-books, e-journals;
    – Giving people login details for library computers and helping them when they have problems/forget passwords etc.;
    – Providing technical support on systems and tools (i.e. loading ebooks from something like Overdrive on to a ereader);
    – Helping people use the photocopier/printer/fax machine;
    – Showing people how to Integrate emerging technologies into their daily lives;
    – Helping people with online council housing lists;
    – Explaining how wifi works;
  • Organising and Running Events and Activities:
    – Organising/promoting events for kids/teens/adults that promote a love of reading;
    – Rhyme time and story time sessions, increasing childhood literacy and promoting reading;
    – Children’s activities;
    – Visiting authors and poets;
    – Book festivals;
    – Gigs (Get It Loud In Libraries);
    – Helping with homework and school projects;
    – Book groups;
    – IT classes;
    – Doing the risk assessments needed to make sure everyone is safe and secure at events;
    – Dressing the library for events, making it look attractive and impressive (professional);
    – Organising school visits
  • Partnership Work with Schools and Other Organisations:
    –  Working with teachers to improve reading skills;
    – Working with schools & other community groups to promote the library and showcase all it has to offer;
    – Visiting schools, talking to parents to promoting a lifelong love of reading with parents and children;
    Giving talks on request from teachers on referencing and the importance of bibliographies for GCSEs/A levels;
    –  Working with U3A and other community groups to help public with online information;
  • Library Management:
    – Understanding how libraries work together, dealing with interlibrary loans and the British Library;
    – Data protection;
    – Reporting on library use and user needs;
    – Using statistics to identify trends and assess levels of use;
    – Managing electronic resources;
    – Ordering databases;
    – Paying invoices;
    – Getting value for money via professional management, organization and promotion of resources;
    – Promoting and marketing the libraries, including using social media to promote the library service;
    – Attending training and events to make sure that the library service is keeping up with developments;
    – Dealing with legislation including reproduction and attendant copyright law: photocopying/scanning for personal use, hi-res resources for publication/TV;
    – Maintaining and building technical solutions for users’ needs;
    – Maintaining a safe, interesting quiet environment;
    – Being a premises controller: be responsible for a large public bldg, know what to do when heating breaks down, roof leaks etc;
    – Training for fire marshals etc;
    – Reporting to local Councillors, showing how libraries meet the wider council aims;
    – Managing budgets and staffing, liaising with those who provide the funds;
  • Collection management:
    – Promoting/displaying/ weeding/ordering stock;
    – Making sure the books and other items in the library are ones that users want/need/will benefit from;
    – Reader and community development – encouraging people to read more widely and helping communities build knowledge and skills – matching resources to people’s needs;
    –  Describing/cataloguing/arranging physical or digital material in useful ways so that people can find it;
    –  Chasing and collecting books back and enforcing fines;
    – Matching stock held with local community group(s) needs;
    – Dealing with stock management / complaints etc. in accordance with international agreements on intellectual freedom;
  • Archives and Special Collections:
    – Digitisation and digital preservation, making sure information will be accessible in future;
    – Storing and conserving media (including old/rare books);
  • Other Council Services Provided Through Libraries:
    – Dealing with people paying council tax and parking fines;
    – Giving out condoms and bin bags;
    – Issuing firearms certificates;
    – Selling charity xmas cards;
    – Issuing blue badges;
    – Issuing over 60s bus passes.

20 thoughts on “What librarians do

  1. Brian Else B.A. (former ALA)

    I do not disagree with your list of specialist and essential activities carried out by Librarians; however, there are others,such as evaluating and acquiring bookstock and other media; building up collections; classifying and cataloguing materials; using these criteria to recover material on request. (Don’t tell me this is now done by booksellers,with untrained staff; I know that!). There are major collections of specialist material hidden away in library back-stacks and stores,and the current staff have no knowledge of them. This is a great scandal. Most of this rare material will be thrown out and never seen by the people who paid for it. I am now retired,but I know where the best books are still hidden. Brian Else (Wakefield and ex-West Riding Libraries.)


  2. Lauren

    Thanks Brian – you’re very right about the other specialist and essential activities. One of my concerns about the potential deprofessionalisation of library services is that so much uncatalogued rare material could be lost forever. For example, Manchester Central Library is being renovated, which means that a large amount of previously uncatalogued sheet music has been retrospectively catalogued. They’ve discovered all kinds of things that they never knew they had, some of which is very valuable. Without knowledgable music librarians, this material could easily have been thrown away during the renovation process.


  3. Alan Brown

    How about our role in generating information e.g. Most Library Authorities generate a local community organisations contacts file. For us this started as a series of printed sheets but is now an online database that we manage for the local authority. There are also many digitisation projects that librarians have managed. We have quite a role in populating the internet with useful content.


  4. Lauren Post author

    A great example of that is Sheffield’s Help Yourself database: http://www.sheffieldhelpyourself.org.uk/

    “The Help Yourself database, which is maintained jointly with NHS Sheffield Library Service, holds information on more than 5000 clubs, organisations, services and groups in Sheffield covering a wide range of subjects from health to sport, from community care to religion.

    The information in The Help Yourself Database is managed and updated jointly by Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information Services and the NHS Sheffield Library Service.”


  5. Jim O'Donnell

    Is it such a great example? I googled “accommodation agencies Sheffield” and found several services not listed on the database, a directory of student accommodation agencies which had a lot of services not on Help Yourself, and some user ratings.

    This sort of professionally curated database could be seen as a kind of ox bow lake – isolated from the flow of information and likely to stagnate. I wonder how many people really use it and if it should continue to be provided? It just doesn’t seem to represent anything to be proud of as a profession – sorry!


  6. Lauren

    Hi Jim,

    It’s impossible to have every company, service and charity listed in the database. Such a task would require far more members of staff than the whole library service employs, I’m sure! I believe those who do work on the database have certain priorities – services over companies, for example. For that reason and many more (the rapidly changing marketplace for student accommodation agencies, and the need for companies in comparison to charities and not-for-profit organisations to list their services in a database such as Help Yourself, for example), it may be found that database entries for private companies are less comprehensive than those for community services, charities etc.

    There is always a risk that any information resource, professionally curated or otherwise, could be underused. Help Yourself is widely advertised in libraries, through other council services, online and offline. As a result it is actually very heavily used, both by the public and by carers and those offering community/care services etc. It serves as a valuable community resource. So, I’d say that it does represent something to be proud of as a profession.


  7. Moira

    I am a humble counter assistant in a library that is facing reduced opening hours. We rarely see ‘librarians’ in our library. In fact my job as a counter assistant has been replaced by a machine. Although I have the greatest respect for anyone who wants to volunteer to run libraries, I feel that they will very quickly decide that they want to be paid for the job that we do. Libraries are no longer about just issuing books. They are very much community centres. Staff have to be completely computer literate,familiar with the working of machines including the photocopier, fax and RFID machine and be able to trouble shoot them. They have to look after homeless people, customers with alcohol and drug problems, mental health problems and people who want to argue the toss over their 18p fine! They have to sort out any issue and enquiry that comes in the door. They have to clean up after everyone that uses the library inappropriately! They also have to contend with learning a new computer system when they are being threatened with redundancy and they have to keep a smile and a welcome for all the old people, children, familiar faces and lonely people that just want a few minutes of human company. You also have to keep a straight face when some people decide to give you the full details of their latest intimate operation! So good luck volunteers – you may want to take the next few years off.


  8. Ray Stearn

    I’d just like to tell you about my working day in the library.
    This happened to be Save Our Libraries Day but it could have been any day.
    First up between 10 and 12 was Rochdale Readers, despite it’s name this has evolved into a creative writing group for children and young people and it’s led by what the young people want. The ages stretch from 3-14 so it’s quite a wide and diverse group.
    Two new members arrived first, sisters Aamna and Ayesha, so they were company for each other and we started by making a Rockin’ Rabbit for Chinese New Year. Then we were joined by two more sisters who just happened to be passing and joined in. Gran was with them and was delighted as the older sister is dyslexic and found this group was great for her grand daughter to join in with, they plan to come again next time.
    Another mum passing by wondered if her 14 year old son would be interested, so she was given details of the next get together. We then wrote Kennings about our Rockin’ Rabbits, which led to Kennings about foxes and lions too. I’ll publish some of these on or Rochdale Readers blog when I get a moment.
    After a quick lunch it was time for the Tasty Tea Time Treats competition which we were doing for the Wallace and Gromit’s Children’s Foundation. I wasn’t a judge so I didn’t get to sample the entries but there were 18 cracking treats, Gromit, for our celebrity chef to decide between. Aaron won with his Bakewell Tart (my walnut bread did not get a mention.) The age range for people who entered was between 12-60 so another success there. The afternoon was steady rather than hectic, which meant I could debate on our favourite Michael Morpurgo novel with one family – both sisters there had chosen Private Peaceful, which I think is a special book (we seemed to get a lot of sisters in on Saturday) The next family wanted their daughter to start reading books on her own, so we had a look through various series which might suit, authors to try and report back on.
    Just a standard day in one library, this one happens to be The Wheatsheaf Library in Rochdale but these stories are being written and re-written day after day all over the country – unless this Government pushes it’s badly conceived, ill thought plans through and all this community engagement ceases nationwide. Where does the “Big Society” go if not to community based centres such as the local library? Where do our next generation of adults go to learn, develop and thrive outside the formal education system if not the local library? Where do you go for a warm and a chat on a cold wet day if not your local library?


  9. James

    This has opened my eyes… honestly. Brian Else’s comment caught my attention too, “I know where the best books are hidden”.

    I should get down to the library.


  10. Kent

    I think we all should respect librarians for their job. It is very difficult to maintain database of books, research about books, help people about research, data protection, paying invoices, legal issues etc.; but librarians did it very well. If any of librarian may not able to do all this well, they should get training inplace of replacing them with machines or softwares.


  11. Red

    Hi , I don’t understand why most housing benefit has been giving to library .!? And why they says only drop evidence , nothing else , why can we not discuss our claim with librarian , as they have all our details .


    1. Gary Post author

      I’m sorry. I’m not sure what you mean. Public librarians wouldn’t have access to housing benefit details.


  12. Edwin Deady

    When I worked in libraries I specialised in what is called business information, information to business and about business. As an entry level to business libraries can be invaluable. Spending time with aspiring entrepreneurs to establish the scope of their business or that vital fact key to their initial success or even survival as a business was profitable to them and rewarding to me and my colleagues professionally.

    On the dark side we plumbed the murky depths of tenancy and company law to suggest (we could not advise) that a refusal to sign a change of tenancy agreement or a speedy visit to a solicitor might be an excellent thing.

    Go into a decent library and for that moment of contact with a librarian and you will find someone completely on your side but willing to be honest as to what the discovered information means.

    One of the hardest times I ever had was when an enquirer was puzzled by a diagnosis that his brother had died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob-disease, better known as Mad Cow disease. No explanation from the hospital, just the words that we had to translate into something understandable and perhaps bearable.


  13. [Redacted]

    I note the impressive list as above and I have nothing but good things to say about Librarians but Lancashire County Council (in its infinite wisdom) has decided to install public toilets in at least three of its outlets thereby making librarians de facto Lavatory Attendants. The problems that they encounter (and this is the tip of the iceberg) are numerous as follows: routine vandalism faeces, urine, vomit, used tampons, condoms and needles. That is fact, not to mention the troublesome type of people that use the toilets eg alcohol and drug abusers, teenage vandals and indeed those that use the toilets for sexual purposes. The Librarians are generally stoic in the face of the foregoing, and with threatened cuts they are very careful not to raise any hackles at County Hall, but I feel that somebody should be aware of just what is going on in Lancashire. I am not (or ever have been ) a library employee, but I have a great deal of respect for Libraries and their employees generally. If you do intend to take this forward please respect my anonymity (I do not wish my name to be shown)but in any event, I welcome your comments.


  14. Reginald

    I have been a user or libraries (public, academic and corporate) for over 50 years. I still prefer to read a book than peer at a tablet but when I need to know something in a hurry I am inevitably going to resort to the internet. Public libraries should concentrate on what they are good at, which is providing a wide range of printed material that would not otherwise be readily accessible to ordinary people. Libraries in other countries still do this but many in the UK turned into multi-functional disaster areas. Bring back libraries that are libraries (silence please!) and a lot of the problems mentioned in other posts will go away. However, even if public libraries survive the information age there is probably no future for professional librarians within their walls.



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