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What does a reference & instruction librarian do all day?

I remember wondering what a reference librarian did all day back when I was interviewing for reference librarian jobs. I’d been an on-call/fill-in librarian at a public library, and I’d been a part time librarian at a small university, but I still couldn’t quite imagine what these jobs would be like in their full-time versions. Would I get bored waiting for people to ask me things? Or would I be swamped with reference questions and never get to do anything else? I was actually kind of worried…

Every so often I get interviewed by library school students, and usually one of the questions amounts to “What do you actually DO all day?” Since I just wrote this down for one such student yesterday, I thought I’d post my response here as well. It’s a pretty brief and general response, but if you’re curious, here’s a sketch of what I do all day.

Typically, my work divides up into 4 categories. First and foremost, there’s the liaison work, which involves meeting with faculty and students about their research needs, teaching classes, creating research guides, helping to staff the reference desk, and doing my best to keep up with both the pedagogical and the research trends in my departments. As one of a team of liaisons, another component of this work is to help steer people to their liaison when issues around library support and information literacy (practice or pedagogy) come up in random conversation. We’re always advocating each other’s work in this way.

Then there’s the work I do as part of the library as an organization. This involves participating in committees, task forces, and collaborations having to do with the running of the library or our work with St Olaf (we’re in a highly collaborative consortium together). For me, this work often revolves around areas like digital humanities support infrastructure, public service coordination between the various public services in the library, and coordination around the publicly available technology in the library. Other librarians have their own areas of expertise, but we all have work of this nature which is more internal to the library.

Then there is the work that I do as a member of our campus community in general. For me this involves working on the campus’ copyright committee, helping to coordinate the various support entities on campus that support digital humanities, collaborating closely with the Writing Center and the campus’ Academic Technologists, and (currently) serving on an implementation team for the college’s transition from locally hosted email and file storage to gmail and dropbox. Other librarians here have their own versions of this list, but we all get drafted into roles like these where our knowledge of information literacy and our relationships with the faculty, staff, and students on campus are called upon in service of a non-library project or function.

And finally, squeezed in as there’s time, there are professional activities that stretch beyond our campus and consortium. For me, this includes participating in an active online librarian society called the Library Society of the World, participating in local library networks, helping to edit an OA library journal called the Journal of Creative Library Practice, blogging here and there, and the occasional presentation or publication.

So there’s a sketch of my work. I like that at a small college I get to do more than one thing, and I like that the main theme of my work is working with people to help them solve problems and get around barriers. Most of my work, most of the time, is about enabling discovery and trying to find the best solutions to messy problems. And most of the time I get to do this work with engaged, inquisitive, smart people. Not a bad way to spend a career, I say.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Thank you for posting this and tweeting it! I recently completed my MLIS (at the University of Rhode Island), a career change – Human Resources for 16 yrs in my past life). I am on the job market, working part-time and wondering this question often. Thank you for your candidness.

  2. I’m glad it was useful to you! The exact mixture of work will vary from institution to institution, of course, and I have never worked at a large university so I can’t really say what work at one of those would be like, but I think most professional positions will have those 4 component parts to some degree or another.

    Good luck with your job hunt!

  3. r Adams r Adams

    I am so glad you posted this. I am sure I enjoyed it more than any other reader! It brought back to me my brief time as reference librarian (back in another era). The radio stations ran trivia questions with prizes. I was deluged with “reference questions” by phone and came to understand the background of the very busy reference desk!
    Again, glad to read your description of your profession. Proud of you!

  4. […] Jastram helped me out with her post “What does a reference & instruction librarian do all day?”  It’s a great, short post that I recommend you read.  But in summary, she breaks her […]

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