Career Strategies for Librarians
Swinging between Academic and Public Librarianship
by Judy Li

In order to familiarize myself with different types of librarianship, I took courses on various types of
libraries when I was a student.  A true understanding and appreciation of their differences did not
become apparent until I personally got a taste of each.  My first job after graduating was working as a
librarian with the Broward County Public Library system.  Although it was not my first library job, it was my
first time working in a public library environment.  After I took my second post-MLIS library job at Nova
Southeastern University’s Alvin Sherman Library, many former co-workers described my job as
“academia.”  Interestingly, it is not the situation that they imagined.  Thanks to the joint-usage agreement
between Broward County and Nova Southeastern University, the Alvin Sherman Library is an academic
library as well as a public library.  I find myself swinging between academic and public librarianship,
which has given me an understanding of how these two categories that appear to be different actually
share the same content.     

Different Missions, Different Clienteles, Different Librarian Roles  
There are many differences between academic and public libraries, such as the organizational
missions, clienteles and roles for librarians.  Because public libraries are funded for the most part by
taxpayers, they are considered a service to the community and must therefore satisfy residents’
changing needs for information, education and recreation.  Public librarians’ roles are focused on
facilitating programs and on general reference research.  The approach to serving public library patrons
is different from the approach to serving college students.  Public patrons come to you expecting to have
their information needs met within seconds.  They do not have the interest or the spare time to
understand where or how you find the information.  “I don’t care how you find it; just get it for me” was a
common statement I heard when I was working at the Broward reference desk.   

Academic libraries are different, as funding comes mainly from the university and partially from the
students’ tuition.  The academic library is considered a supporting service and follows the host’s
teaching mission.  The librarian’s role is slanted more toward teaching group or individual bibliographic
instruction and providing subject research assistance for faculty and students.  Academic librarians
answer reference questions throughout the year, but their busiest times are the beginning and end of
every semester when they are asked by faculty instructors and individual students to conduct instruction
workshops on using databases.

It sometimes seems amazing that these two distinct types of librarianship go on under one roof in the
Alvin Sherman Library.  The Public Library Services on the first floor caters to public users’ information
needs, while the Research Area on the second floor focuses on both public and academic users’
research needs.  Thanks to the collaboration between Nova Southeastern University and Broward
County Board of County Commissioners, the Alvin Sherman Library is one of a kind in South Florida.  In
this library, you will run into young mothers pushing baby strollers into the library for storytime programs
and college students heading for library research training.  Because of the facility’s uniqueness,
librarians providing public services in the Alvin Sherman Library need to act as public librarians or as
academic librarians depending upon who approaches the reference desk.  

How to Equip Yourself to Face These Challenges  
Skills in knowledge management, technology, research, and communication are basic to any public or
academic librarian job.  These skills need to be enhanced and updated continuously as a library degree
only gets you started in the field.  Proficiency in using various databases, online searching skills, and
subject knowledge are particularly important in academic libraries.  Communication skills are important
in both public and academic library environments.  Knowing how to communicate with patrons,
particularly in a multicultural environment like South Florida, involves more than just a command of
English.  Libraries today are applying marketing principles in providing their services.  Among the
Marketing Mix’s 7Ps, “people” and “procedure” are important factors in service businesses, including

We learned how to catalog, how to develop a collection, and how to conduct a reference interview in our
library studies.  However, the patron or user is actually the core of the entire concept.  It is important to
learn how to deal with patrons with different personalities, and particularly with difficult people.  Working
with public library patrons can present special challenges due to their wide range of backgrounds and
behaviors.  However, with the fast-growing number of non-traditional curricula, academic library users
are not limited to faculty members and traditional four-year students any more; they are a subset of
public library patrons.  Librarians often need to handle inappropriate behavior or an “I-know-more-than-
you-do” attitude on the part of some patrons.  It is critical to brush up on people skills from time to time in
order to be prepared for different difficult situations.  

What Library School Didn’t Teach Me  
My work experience has taught me one important thing that I didn’t get from my studies or at any library
conference.  We talk about how to satisfy our patrons’ needs, but we do not cater to our own
psychological needs. This is critically important to me and also affects how I provide services.  This
important term is “laughter.”  I experienced the importance of laughing when I worked in the Business,
Law and Government (BLG) Services section of the Broward County Public Library.  I would like to take
this opportunity to thank all my former co-workers at BLG for helping me experience the importance of
laughter.  Although we would never criticize our patrons, we would “laugh away the unhappiness”
whenever we came across unpleasant moments with patrons. It helped move on with my life and
balanced me psychologically.  It cleaned out the unhappiness and prepared me to turn a new page and
greet the next patron with a pleasant mind.   

As a conclusion, I would like to share with you this quotation that both best describes my job and is also
a guideline to help me do it well:  
“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on
it." - Samuel Johnson

About the Author:

Judy Li is a Business/Social Sciences Librarian at Nova Southeastern University’s Alvin Sherman Library
in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Before joining the university, she was with the Broward County Public Library
as State Document Librarian for the system and as International Trade Librarian for the Main Library.  
She received her MLIS from University of Western Ontario.  Prior to her library degree, she worked as a
graduate intern with the Canadian Government’s Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions’
research library; was a solo librarian in special libraries in the Hong Kong telecommunication industry;
and was a library assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Article published March 2006

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.