Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
August 2006

Librarians and Their Expertise

When was the last time you walked into a library? Was the library in your school, work or community? Have you stopped to think how a library works? Have you thought, "How nice, they work with people all day?" Are you concerned with making your school, work or community at better place?

Librarians and their expertise are poorly understood even by those who hire them. The public who uses libraries has few concepts of the training and expertise of a librarian. Summer is the time for professional library associations to hold their annual meetings. In June the American Library Association met in New Orleans, the American Theological Library Association met in Chicago, and the Association of Jewish Libraries met in Cambridge, MA. Librarians meet to learn and share the latest and greatest ideas and get recharged by meeting their colleagues from other places. An almost subliminal stream of thought is, "finally someone who understands me."

I teach students to become librarians. The students need to master not only the practical knowledge of books, non-print materials, and electronic materials but also the theoretical skills to meet the challenges of tomorrow. They need the people skills to work with their peers, their superiors, and patrons of all ages. Well run organizations have well oiled lines of communication. One often hears about libraries reducing their budgets because the parent organization (city, business, school board) needs to "save money." Do these people know what the library and librarians do? Libraries buy materials so that everyone does not have to buy their own copies. That saves everyone time and money. Since librarians are very service oriented, all their training and experience is often not preparation to explain how the library impacts the bottom line.

Let me explain the role of a librarian. If you had only six books in your collection no librarian or catalog would be needed. The details of all the books could be kept in your head. When you have more books and materials, they need to be ordered so that you can find what you need. If you are taking care of your personal collection, you may not hire a librarian, but you are relying on the expertise of librarians. The influence of librarians has ensured that there are rules for ordering books on shelves. There are rules for recording the author, title and other data to identify books. The catalog and librarian make a bunch of books into a library. The librarian's job is to order the randomness of a pile of books. That order helps you know what is there and how to find the items when you want. The goal of a good library is to put books, non-print items (for example CDs and videos), and information into the hands of those who need them in a timely manner.

A librarian needs to be able to handle any kind of information that has ever been produced and any information that will be produced in the future. No one can be an expert in everything. Librarians need to partner with experts in every discipline of knowledge. Their expertise is organizing information and knowing how to formulate effective questions. In large libraries with many librarians, experts may be defined by subject areas (e.g. science, math, or religion) or by function (e.g. reference, instruction, technical services, or administrative.) In small libraries, the librarian will wear many hats.

Technical services (ordering, receiving, cataloging and making materials shelf ready) and public services (reference, circulation and library instruction) are both parts of customer service. Technical services puts books on the shelves and public services help patrons find them. Librarians are in charge of evaluating, acquiring, maintaining, preserving, and circulating materials. In a business this activity adds to the competitive edge. In a school, public, or non-profit library the librarian adds to the value of the education or the professional activity of the organization. A great public library adds value to those living in its community. The skill of a reference librarian may save patron time and money. The skill of a cataloger saves time and effort for the reference librarian or patron.

We teach library school students to prioritize. This is a skilled management operation. The tasks needed to be done by the librarian are never ending. The librarian decides how to best allocate resources. The librarian focuses on public service. All the rules of cataloging are supposed to help patrons find materials. Because information and the language needed to describe information changes so rapidly, librarians never stop learning. Collections never stop growing, developing and refining themselves. In all types of libraries the librarian decides what products and services best help the organization achieve its goals. This is not always easy because the librarian needs to be aware of how both information changes and how the needs of the organization develop. Upper management may be concerned with the here and now, while librarians know to be prepared for today, tomorrow and many years into the future. If the parent organization changes, the library needs to meet new challenges. The librarian needs to advise members of the organization on not just the best information to fit their needs, but also the most cost effective methods to deliver the information. That means sometimes spending big bucks today to save even bigger bucks in the future.

Preparation, planning, and administration are important priority required activities. Every library has limited resources of time, space, money, and knowledge. A library, even a non-profit one, is a business. These business activities are the most crucial activities of the library. This is how the library impacts the community and the bottom line of a business or organization. Librarians are experts in the technology of storing and retrieving data and information. A successful program or publication requires many project management and business skills that the public never sees. All of the business activities support the goals of meeting and serving the public.

Seven is a magic number in human memory. We chuck memories into groups of seven. Many ideas need to be repeated seven times before they sink in. We sometimes need to find seven ways to send the message to the customer, library user, or parent organization.

The second area of expertise for librarians is a base of knowledge. Classes involve the historical development of books, libraries and information; the theory of how things work; and the practical. The practical can change rapidly based on new ideas and materials. Hopefully, once learned the theory remains fairly stable. Students enter library school with at least a bachelor's degree. To achieve master status many librarians pursue a subject master's degree in addition to the library science degree. A few earn research doctorates either to teach or be librarian/scholars.

The third area of expertise is the area of people skills. The reference interview process includes how to help the patron ask the questions to get the answers they need. Librarians use presentation skills to teach, give speeches, tell stories, and give presentations.

The fourth area is research. Students must practice research skills to enable them to better help patron with their research. When they learn the language of scholarly research, they are better able to learn about new subject areas. If they master one subject, the mastery of another subject is much easier. Librarians are expert in finding the answers, not in knowing everything. Their "bag of tricks" includes reference books, online resources, and human contacts.

The fifth area is writing skills. No matter how many English composition courses they have taken, students still need help with scholarly and everyday writing. You would be amazed at how many students do not put their name and date on papers and how many don't properly sign e-mails. The only ways to learn writing are first to read and second to practice.

The sixth area is communications. Communications involves finding the correct venue for delivering message and delivering the message in the most effective way. The message could be helpful directional signs for people entering and using your building and its resources. The messages also include materials on how to use the library, lists of books, newsletters, advertisements, e-mail, list-servs, web pages, and any other way to publicize library activities or communicate within and outside of the library. Since this is an area of knowledge that we don't cover in library school very well, students have to learn on their own or on the job.

The seventh and final area is life long learning. The goal of any educational experience is to teach the tools and foundation for further learning. By showing the direction librarians become life long learners and encourage this activity in everyone they meet. Librarians are humble; they don't know everything. However, they need to be prepared to find the information or someone who can help them.

Librarians, especially solo librarians, need to have more respect in the organizations and communities they help make better places to work and live.

To summarize-- Here are the seven areas of librarian expertise:
  • 1. Business skills -- Prioritize, manage and administer the activities of a library
  • 2. Knowledge skills in subject areas that support the organization
  • 3. People skills
  • 4. Research skills
  • 5. Writing skills
  • 6. Communication, publicity and advertising skills
  • 7. Life-long learning. The librarian is both the example and the facilitator of never ending learning and curiosity.

  • Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:

    Last revised August 3, 2006.
    Links | Home | Company Services | Definitions of Knowledge Management Terms | E-Books