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How Do I Become a Research Librarian?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell

Obtaining a master’s of library and information science degree is usually a fundamental requirement to become a research librarian, but it is rarely the lone criteria. Research librarians usually also have expertise in the discipline in which they work, be it law, medicine, or general university education. Sometimes this knowledge comes from book learning, other times from practical experience. A basic knowledge of library procedures is usually also beneficial.

Research librarians, also sometimes called reference librarians, spend their days organizing research materials and helping patrons find specific information. The job is similar on the surface to a general circulation librarian. Primary differences usually center the depth of knowledge required for the job: in a research capacity, librarians need to know not just where information is, but also precisely what it contains and what else it is related to. Cataloging, organizing, and arranging the material is also easiest with some familiarity with basic research patterns and skills. It is for these reasons that specific education is one of the core requirements to become a research librarian.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for the job is to get a master’s degree in library and information science from a university that specializes in reference librarianship. There are many different types of library schools to choose from. While any library science degree can usually be applied to a research capacity, finding a course program that is tailored to the research realm is usually the best bet.

If you are uncertain about a school’s research credentials, start by doing some investigation on your own, both in the school's literature and in the community. Admissions personnel at the school are usually the best resources, but other professional organizations, at either the national or local level, may also be able to provide information on certain program strengths. The American Library Association, the British Association for Information and Library Education and Research, and organizations like them are good places to start. Regional and national library associations like these often publish compendiums of objective library school assessments and ratings, usually on an annual basis.

Look for schools that have strong research training as well as solid job placement credentials. Programs that provide practical job skills, like internships or apprenticeship opportunities, may make it easier for you to become a research librarian by providing you with a portfolio of work experience. It is not usually possible to specialize in a certain type of research while in a master’s program, but if you are interested in a particular type of research librarianship — in a medical library, for instance — choosing a school that also supports a nursing or medical school can be a hidden asset. You will be able to spend time in, and possibly also work in, that library during your studies, which can forge solid connections and build marketable experience both.

It is usually possible to become a research librarian in a variety of disciplines. Prior medical knowledge is not always a requirement to becoming a medical reference librarian, for example, but it is usually preferred. You are likely to find the most success in your job search if you look for experiences that match your own expertise. The more connections you can personally draw to a library's information, the easier it will be to become a research librarian who helps make access to those materials more ubiquitous. A job that you have a passion for is likely to be one that is more fulfilling for longer, too.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books