Professional Hat Rack: The Ever-Changing Roles of an Academic Librarian

Librarians might find themselves changing hats or wearing more than one hat throughout their careers as librarians within the library. At University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) library, I and my colleagues have traded and accepted many roles many times. Academic librarians step outside their job descriptions and comfort zones. Perhaps most unique to academic librarians (particularly those classified as faculty) is the expectation to publish. Any librarian that writes a book, an article or a book review on the subject of library and information science or any subject is an author. But many hats are familiar to librarians from all types of libraries. What are some of the other roles that I and my colleagues have adopted?

Jack of All Departments

At some point, librarians retrieve and reshelve books. So, in essence, all librarians perform as circulation librarians. If patrons ask the Serials Librarian at the Serials Desk or the Circulation Librarian at the Circulation Desk or any librarian for that matter for assistance in locating a serial, book or library holding, the Serials Librarian, the Circulation Librarian or any librarians are in actuality completing duties similar to reference librarians. Librarians assisting colleagues or students at copy machines are at that moment copy attendants. Librarians that tidy the library and throw away remaining rejected papers from copy machines and printers are substitute janitors.

Librarians face a special challenge when their libraries are understaffed. At one time ULM had an evening and weekend reference librarian, but after her relocation, her position was frozen. Often the ULM library has reconsidered hiring an evening and weekend librarian, but because funds are unavailable, the serials librarian, the archivist, the interlibrary loan librarian, the government documents librarians, the acquisitions librarian and the cataloger act in the capacity of reference librarians on appointed nights and weekends. When ULM is short-handed on hired reference librarians, the dean of the library has manned the reference desk on appointed nights and weekends.


When a position is (thankfully) unfrozen, a librarian may face a new role: member of the search committee. Upon notification that funds are available to fill a frozen Reference Librarian position, the Dean of the ULM Library alerts the head of reference. The reference department head usually serves as chair of a committee to search for a reference librarian. The committee usually consists of all the librarians that serve as reference librarians. If a librarian’s schedule does not permit his or her serving on the reference librarian search committee, he or she may decline the appointment. However, it is beneficial for all reference librarians to assist on the reference librarian search committee since remaining active in committee work is a form of professional development.

The Dean of the ULM library or the chair advertises the position. Vitas of potential candidates are given to the head of reference. The head of reference makes copies of the vitas and distributes the copies of the vitas to the reference librarian search committee members. The head of reference then sends an email message to the committee members asking to meet to narrow the selection to candidates that the committee would like to talk with on the telephone in a conference call. The committee meets and chooses five or six candidates to speak with on the telephone.

The Head of Reference contacts the reference librarian candidates about dates and times to conduct the telephone interviews. After communicating with the potential reference librarians by telephone, the reference librarian search committee calls the reference librarian candidates’ references. Using impressions from the telephone interviews, the committee chooses one candidate to interview.

At the onsite interview, the reference librarian search committee will listen to the candidate’s presentation, ask questions, answer questions and perhaps hopefully offer the reference librarian position to the candidate that day. One reference librarian on the committee will be a tour guide for an hour when he or she walks around campus with the reference librarian candidate. Usually the committee, the dean of the library and any other interested librarians eat lunch at a local Monroe restaurant. The accompanying librarians are being tour guides showing the sites of Monroe while traveling to the restaurant.

Colleague Evaluator

Another variation in duty is when the dean of the library asks a librarian to serve as chair or serve with other librarians on a committee to award a colleague tenure or promotion. When this arises, as chair of a tenure or promotion committee, the chair makes copies of the coworker’s dossier and distributes the copies of the dossier to the committee. The chair emails the committee questioning if a certain time is suitable to meet to discuss awarding the librarian tenure or a promotion. Fortunately, on occasion a committee does not have to convene at all due to unanimous agreement and approval of tenure or promotion at the start after the committee initially looks at the dossier of the tenure or promotion candidate.

If the committee would like the colleague to modify the dossier, the committee chair informs the colleague of the requested revisions. The committee meets once more after viewing the modifications the colleague made to his or her dossier to decide if the librarian is awarded tenure or promotion. The committee chair gives the decision to the dean of the library. Hopefully within the next year the tenure or promotion candidate will increase in rank from a non-tenured employee to a tenured employee or from an assistant professor to an associate professor, etc.

Infrastructure Engineer, Teacher, Tech Guru . . .

Librarians form committees or create new positions when special needs arise. For instance, university libraries that automated their card catalogs in the 1990’s may have closed the library completely during the interim period between semesters so all librarians and all library staff could be automatons of the collection.

Reference Librarians are teachers when they instruct students in the classroom library skills. The Interlibrary Loan Librarian speaking with a graduate class about using interlibrary loan is a stand-in instructor. The Interlibrary Loan Department takes on the role of a library when it obtains books from other libraries for ULM patrons and sends ULM library books to patrons at other libraries.

Librarians must be typists and must know some information about computers. Gratefully and thankfully though, all academic libraries have computer analysts and computer experts. ULM librarians are statisticians given that ULM librarians maintain a compilation of monthly statistics for the library departments.

Perhaps most tellingly about life in the academic library, academic librarians are students themselves learning new information everyday.

Melinda F. Matthews is Interlibrary Loan/Reference Librarian at the University of Louisiana’s Monroe Library.