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How do I Learn about Careers in Library Science?: Public Libraries

Learning About Public Librarians

When you think of a public library, you probably picture the library you went to as a child. Everyone thinks the library they grew up with is the typical public library, but these libraries come in all shapes and size.

How is a public library organized?

The most common versions of a public library are:

  • A large library system with multiple branch libraries (large urban areas)
  • A single library serving one town/county (smaller towns and rural areas)

The size and educational background of the staff depends on the size of the library. In a very small library, there may be only one or two employees with an MLS degree (usually the Library Director or Branch Manager, or the department heads). In larger libraries, there can be many employees with an MLS on staff in each department.

Who comes to the public library?

Since public libraries are acccessible to everyone, they tend to see the greatest diversity in terms of patron. As such, public libraries need to offer collections and services for babies, children, teenagers, adults, and seniors.

People come to the library for more reasons than just checking out books/dvds/cds, or attending story-times. Public libraries are a natural gathering place. Kids and teens often hang out after school, and many public libraries provide spaces for community clubs and organizations to hold meetings. Computer access is another major draw, whether it is public library computers or the availability of WiFi for personal laptops.

Most of the common job duties in a public library are divided by age group: Children/Youth Services, Teen/Young Adult (YA) Services, and Adult Services. In a bigger library, librarians may only work in one department, but they tend to work with all age groups in a smaller setting. If you hope to work with children or young adults, make sure to take library school coursework in youth librarianship and literature.

Many job tasks in a public library involve working directly with library patrons in such areas as:

  • Reference- Providing assistance with questions. A lot of people come into public libraries to use computers so you can expect frequent questions about them, especially in libraries that don't have a dedicated IT department.



  • Reader's Advisory - Making recommendations about recreational reading based on patron interests and books they previously enjoyed. If you're interested in public librarianship, it's helpful to take classes in youth literature or popular fiction while in library school.



  • Programming - Planning events for the community. Some programs occur on a regular basis (story-times in the children's department, computer classes for adults), others take place at a certain time of year (summer reading programs), and some are special events (guest speakers, fairy tale balls, etc).




Search for librarian jobs in public libraries currently open on ALA Joblist and check out the job's responsibilities or desired/preferred qualifications to get an idea of what types of roles are out there.


Most public librarian positions require a Master of Library Science (MLS) or a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree, preferably from a school accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). There are many options regarding program style and size. Undergraduate degrees in almost any subject area are appropriate.

For more questions about Public Librarianship take a look at the Careers in Public Librarianship article from the Public Library Association.

Who's Who

Librarian - Duties include overseeing departments and staff, so supervisory experience is usually preferred. Usually requires a MLS degree.

Library Assistant/Associate/Specialist - Duties include a variety of work ranging from checking out books to job tasks that are similar to those of a librarian (such as answering reference questions).  Usually requires a Bachelor's degree, but not an MLS.

Clerk - Duties include working at the circulation desk, registering patrons for library cards, and giving basic information about library policies. Usually requires a high school diploma or GED.

Page -Duties include sorting and shelving books, and pulling hold requests.

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