How do the mix of job duties, work environment, and other qualitative factors for academic librarians compare to those for tenure-track faculty? (Some academic librarians are tenure-track faculty, but I imagine that even their jobs are structured differently than their T-T professor colleagues.) Or, even without the comparative aspect, what are characteristic features of the academic librarian job?

(It's easy to learn formal requirements of a job but harder to understand other essential aspects. For instance, I heard an anecdote about a jurisdiction that combined its police and fire departments to save money. Despite lots of overlap in required qualifications--fitness, courage, first aid skills--the pace of the jobs was so different that many employees were unhappy. Typical fire departments have lots of down time interspersed with quickly responding to emergencies, while police officers often have routine duties that ideally defuse situations before they become emergencies. That is, workplace styles and job realities differed, and those differences mattered.)

As you may have guessed, I have a recent Ph.D. and have a short-term academic job. I am considering taking an library science class in the fall and/or gaining work experience in a library (as an assistant or similar position). However, before taking those steps, I'd like to learn more about what the academic librarian job looks like. While I'm reaching out to librarians at the university where I work, I would like to draw on the cross-institutional experience that you all might have. I recognize that experiences can differ greatly, so if you think what you've seen might be a limited view, I encourage you to answer but add that qualification. I am particularly interested in information about the United States and Canada.

  1. What do the hours and demands look like? Professors usually have work "follow them home," and I wonder to what extent this is true for academic librarians.

  2. To what extent is research and publishing required (esp. for tenure-track librarians), and how much is that "built into" the job, as opposed to something that is entirely off-the-clock? Does it matter whether publications advance academic study (e.g. curating an archive or creating bibliographies) versus library practice (e.g. how to support undergraduate learning, lessons learned from creating in-library maker spaces, designing and disseminating resources)?

  3. How scattered or coherent is a typical day on the job? Is it constant interruptions or highly structured and routine, or does this depend on one's own preferences or the particular position?

  4. What is the job market like? (For instance, I'd characterize the job market for professors as being nationwide, rigidly annual, lumpy (most departments have 0 openings at a given time), and uncertain.) And if one has a partner who is seeking a tenure-track professor jobs, what does the two-body-problem look like?

  5. To what extent must one have a Master's degree in Library Science or Library and Information Science (MLS/MLIS)? What other kinds of postdocs or training might be available as alternatives? (I originally left this question out, assuming this would be required outside of extraordinary cases. However, I am aware that this is a very important question.)


Kristen Arnett has a new column in Literary Hub about life as a librarian. Her first column gives a flavor of the answer I'm seeking, but I doubt that academic librarians have frequent glitter glue shenanigans (on the clock).

"The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others. It’s about community service. Librarianship asks you to do 12 things at once and then when you’re in the middle of those projects wonders if you’ve got any tax forms left or an eclipse viewer. It’s endless questions. It’s “my two dollar fine pays your salary.” It’s a grubby little hand at storytime grabbing your leg and smearing glitter glue down the side of pants you’ve already worn twice that week. It’s finding the right answer to a question and reveling in that small joy for a bare moment before another patron comes up to ask you something even weirder. It’s library work, and it’s exhausting."

Related SE resources

Other resources addressing becoming an academic librarian

The following resources assume or strongly recommend a Masters in Library Science. In general, their target audience is either an undergraduate considering an MLS or someone who already holds an MLS, meaning they're useful background information but less likely to address my concerns. While Todd Gilman's columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education are aimed at people with Ph.D.'s, he also seems to be strongly selling the role of librarian, as well as arguing that doctorate-holders ought not become librarians without an MLS/MLIS; I'd like to see how typical his views are and what other perspectives are shared by people in his position.

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    If you don't intend to get a graduate degree in library science, then I don't think you'll be qualified for the job of "academic librarian". My impression is that such a degree will be a minimum requirement for most positions. You'd be looking more for jobs like "library assistant", which are going to be very different - much more like staff than faculty. Mar 26, 2018 at 1:32
  • @NateEldredge I agree, and I will clarify my question to reflect that. If I were to work in a library in the next year, I would be in something like a "library assistant" role, but I'm trying to figure out what I can about the role of academic librarian before changing jobs and pursuing a degree or postdoc that would qualify me as an academic librarian. Mar 26, 2018 at 1:57
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    Professors usually have work "follow them home" --- This is kind of like saying marathon runners usually have training runs that they take outdoors. Mar 26, 2018 at 10:13
  • @DaveLRenfro You're right--but I didn't want every answer to be from runners who solely train on indoor tracks and treadmills. ;) That is, if I'd said, "You never escape thinking about your job and you see your [equipment/materials] more than you see your loved ones," I think it would derail people into saying, "But if you're a professor, that's part of the joy of it...", focusing on describing the professor side instead of the librarian side. Mar 26, 2018 at 15:01
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    @OBu I'm looking at the U.S. (and potentially Canada), where the exact status of academic librarians depends on the institution. (I'm not tied to it being a faculty-like job, and so I'm also interested in hearing answers about what it is like when it does not have that aspect to it.) Apr 2, 2018 at 18:29

1 Answer 1


A friend of mine who works as an academic librarian for a law school has offered the following commentary:

So, I’m going to try to answer the q’s on academic library work:

  1. I typically work a 9-5 M-F type of week. However, what that really means is that I’m in the office by 8 am some days, and others by noon. We’re expected to do one 8-hour shift at least one Saturday a month. Other places I’ve worked required a Sunday shift. It varies. But rarely do you really work that much outside of your actual work time, unless you’re teaching or publishing.

  2. Research and publishing requirements vary by school. Most don’t require it, but it’s helpful for salary increases. Obviously, it’s necessary if you’re tenure-track. But those kind of library gigs are few and far between. Most places you’re treated as above academic staff, but below faculty. It doesn’t matter most places where you publish; it’s more a bonus achievement.

  3. A “typical” day doesn’t exist. At my library, all librarians are expected to put in 10-20 a week at reference, we’ve got a variety of meetings, and there’s “off-desk” reference, such as faculty research. Throw in some collection development stuff, instruction sessions, bibliographic work, and maybe a professional conference or group meeting away from campus. You might also have other things go on that reflect student schedules, such as organizing activities for orientation week or helping with HS student campus visits.

  4. I don’t have a good grasp of what the job market is like for science or med libraries; law is different than other academic areas b/c there’s competition with the private sector.

  5. This depends a great deal on the institution and hiring committee. Some places are a stickler for having the MLS degree, while others are not. In STEM areas, I’d opt for the subject knowledge first. Some of our STEM research librarians don’t have MLS degrees at all, as far as I know, and one is working on it. The bigger issue is if you’d be doing just science work or would ever have to work on a general reference desk. Some places will hire, then say “but you have to get the MLS in x years.”


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