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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

By the book? Not today's information-savvy librarians

By Jack Kazmierski
Special to The Toronto Sun

"OK, sure. We've all got our little preconceived notions about what librarians are and what they do. Many people think of them as diminutive civil servants, scuttling about "Sssh-ing" people and stamping things. Well, think again buster.

"We have to manage information from a number of suppliers, provided in different platforms, and create interfaces, common portals and means for users to access it all," says Cathy Matthews, chief librarian, Ryerson University.
"Librarians have degrees. They go to graduate school for information science and become masters of data systems and human/computer interaction. Librarians can catalog anything from an onion to a dog's ear."

This tongue-in-cheek preamble is taken from the Web site, which salutes the modern librarian. Although obviously humorous in nature, this excerpt manages to capture the essence of the contemporary librarian.

Forget Mrs. Crabapple, with her horn-rimmed bifocals and sensible shoes. Today's librarians are multi-tal- ented, technically savvy information brokers trained to help information seekers find exactly what they're looking for. Some librarians even wear stilettos.

If you've ever used an Internet search engine, you know that the bulk of the information retrieved isn't relevant to your work. To find anything useful you have to dig deeper, and that's where librarians come into the picture.

Managing information

"A lot of the journals and databases we get are available in electronic form," explains Cathy Matthews, chief librarian, Ryerson University. "We have to manage information from a number of suppliers, provided in different platforms, and create interfaces, common portals and means for users to access it all."

Since databases can cost as much as $90,000 US, it's vital to maximize their use.

"We have to make vocabularies and presentation formats uniform, and do all sorts of things behind the scenes that gets the information to the user," Matthews says. "Then, we want to teach people in the university how to access and use the information we've paid so much money for. Our primary objective is to assist users and help them find what they need, when they need it."

But not all librarians work in the traditional school or municipal library environment.

"Librarians work for publishers of databases in areas from design to marketing, for software companies designing information retrieval products, as researchers and analysts in a wide range of organizations, as Web designers, knowledge managers, in managerial positions for book retailers, and last but not least, in libraries in a range of public and technical roles and a whole assortment of information-based operations," Matthews explains.

Wherever a librarian chooses to work, to get into the field, a master's degree is a must. "You need a master's degree, accredited by the American Library Association," explains Claire Beghtol, associate dean, faculty of information studies, University of Toronto. This is a two-year graduate program, and in the Toronto area, only the U of T offers it.

Graduates earn a master of library science or master of information studies.

An additional master's degree in another subject can also be a benefit.

"We have one PhD-qualified librarian and several people with second master's level degrees," Matthews explains. "These people can bring a particular subject knowledge to building collections. For example, if you have a strong history program, you'll want a librarian who has a strong history background to enable you to build good history collections."

Competitive salaries

A recent study points to a shortage of librarians in the near future, as many reach retirement age and as the available pool of qualified graduates gets smaller.

But it's a competitive marketplace, which is good news for job seekers. Librarians earn a starting yearly salary of around $40,000, but that can increase to more than $100,000, depending on the position and length of service.

In universities, librarians are usually members of the faculty association, have ranks through which they progress, and thus have a good earning potential.

In elementary schools or high schools, a bachelor of education with a library specialty is preferred, because in a school environment librarians are teachers first. The librarians who work in the school system tend to be paid at the same rate as teachers.

Salary ranges in the public library system, are comparable to a universities', as both are competing for the same graduates.

With excellent earning potential, an increasing need for qualified candidates and a job description that goes way beyond knowing the Dewey Decimal system, a career as a librarian could prove to be the exciting challenge you're looking for.

Matthews sums it up quite nicely when she says, "Librarians rock!"

(Jack Kazmierski ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.)

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