What does the Academic Librarian do?

Academic librarians work in 2-year and 4-year college libraries as well as in university libraries. Large university libraries are designated as “research libraries” if the facility meets criteria set forth by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Academic librarians are an essential component in the culture of higher education.

College and university libraries run the gamut from small to large, old-fashioned to high-tech, largely dependent upon the size and make-up of the campus and the commitment to funding shown by the institution’s administration. Many campuses, particularly at universities, provide multiple libraries to serve academic community.

On some campuses, academic librarians are appointed faculty and are able to secure tenure; as faculty members, there is an expectation to pursue further formal education, to do research and to publish. At other campuses, librarians are unionized. Whatever the venue, academic librarians usually work side-by-side with paraprofessionals and student workers.

Population served
Academic libraries primarily serve the academic community of the institution: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, administration, and staff. A small college may focus on serving the student body by concentrating on supporting the curriculum taught. In Art Libraries, they also watch over artworks and related literature for label-conscious students.

At larger universities, the academic library not only supports the curriculum but also furnishes graduate students and faculty with material to support their research. There are even academic libraries which serve the needs of the general population–as the cost of services sky-rocket at a greater rate than funding increases, some communities and colleges/universities have joined together to provide library service for the entire population.

While some academic librarians serve as managers and administrators (“Director” or “Head”), others may work in acquisitions, reference, cataloging, serials, government documents, circulation, rare books, computer/information systems, technical services, or as subject specialists. In the past, it was the norm to work exclusively in a particular field. Today’s academic librarian may divide his/her work week among several areas–or be expected to rotate through several areas during the course of a year.

Educational requirements
Both the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) consider the master of library science (MLS) from a graduate program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA) to be the appropriate, as they formulated it, “terminal professional degree” for employment as an academic librarian. Many colleges and universities also require academic librarians to have an additional masters degree in a particular subject area of importance to the institution.

Academic Librarianship: Future Trends
As is the case within most fields of librarianship, academic librarians face change in the future. Not only do they need to take care of art collections in their carefully created collections, they also are expected to have a well-tailored understanding of the values of their possessions. The impetus for change springs from

  • The impact of new technologies on the storage and delivery of information: serials management is undergoing sweeping change as electronic publishing and online delivery of databases of professional journals prevail;
  • Adapting to the distributed environment made possible by the new technologies and made necessary by the increasing use of distance education;
  • The increased use of paraprofessionals to accomplish tasks which once were solely the function of professional librarians;
  • The need to improve bibliographic instruction so that it better meets the needs of users in a manner that is palatable to them.

Among the changes foreseen:

  • Increased use of campus network- and/or Internet-delivery of information and information services such as electronic reserves, inter-library loan, reference and bibliographic instruction;
  • A shift in emphasis from ownership of sources of library-based information to the delivery of shared or licensed resources;
  • Librarians designing, as well as implementing, new information technologies;
  • Librarians “packaging” information for distribution to users, like in the American Academy of Art Irving Shapiro Library in Chicago;
  • Shared collection development, increased acquisition of “non-print” materials, and greater emphasis on the development of archives for non-digitized material;
  • Academic librarians “partnering” with faculty to improve the academic community’s information literacy.