Academic Librarianship & Foreign Languages Recruitment Page

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WESSWeb > WESS Committees > Recruitment to the Profession Committee > Academic Librarianship and Foreign Languages Recruitment Page

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What do academic librarians do, anyway?

Most librarian positions combine a number of the traditional functions listed below. For example, collection services + public services (e.g., Classics selector who also works at a reference desk); or cataloging + collection services (e.g., Slavic cataloger who also orders Slavic Studies materials).

Large institutions typically require a greater degree and variety of staff specializations than smaller ones. In smaller institutions, however, librarians frequently have duties that blend many of these traditional functions.

Collection services librarians are often called bibliographers, selectors, subject specialists, or curators.

  • Build collections in various formats, such as books, journals, DVDs, and databases.
  • Evaluate student and faculty title requests.
  • Manage subjects/title criteria for automatic shipment programs with book vendors.
  • Review titles for preservation, replacement, or deselection.
  • Keep abreast of users' needs and changes in academic disciplines.

Public services librarians

  • Answer faculty and student research questions in-person, by email, by phone, or through IM/chat.
  • Offer in-depth or specialized research consultation.
  • Provide library tours and instruction in the use of library resources to users.
  • Liaise with faculty and students in academic departments.
  • Promote library services to users.

Catalog librarians

  • Analyze and describe library materials according to established standards.
  • Work in many languages and subjects, handling materials such as, books, journals, databases, DVDs, maps, and other formats.
  • Manage library catalogs to ensure efficiency and accuracy.
  • Supervise paraprofessional cataloging staff.

Acquisitions librarians

  • Supervise the ordering of materials.
  • Negotiate with domestic and foreign publishers and vendors.
  • Manage allocation of library funds.
  • Manage receipt of items purchased.

Other functions

  • Electronic Resources/System librarians implement information technology (IT) to improve service and oversee a library's subscriptions to Internet resources.
  • Metadata/Digital Services librarians manage library digitization projects and institutional repositories.
  • Circulation/Inter-Library Loan librarians oversee circulation units and borrowing from and lending to other libraries.
  • Library Administators (library deans, library directors, department heads) supervise staff and oversee library functions.

I want more information about what librarians do.

How do foreign language skills fit in?

Foreign languages play a significant role in most of the major functions of academic librarians. Librarians may be asked to:

Find and evaluate resources in foreign languages

  • Evaluate a German database for purchase.
  • Locate digital copies of 16th-century books in Italian.
  • Decide on whether to purchase a certain book in Spanish.

Analyze, describe, and provide access to items in foreign languages

  • Catalog a collection of Middle French books.
  • Plan and implement a digitization project of Latin texts.
  • Determine the correct subject terms for a book in Greek.

Help faculty and students use foreign language materials

  • Create a web guide or teach a class on using a database which is only in French and German.
  • Instruct students on using Spanish print indexes and bibliographies.
  • Assist a faculty member in getting materials from the Netherlands.

Communicate with foreign vendors and librarians

Assist other library staff with language issues

  • Assist with giving library orientation to students with limited English skills.
  • Assist cataloging staff with interpreting texts in Catalan.
  • Assist with translating a licensee agreement from French.

A 2007 survey of academic librarians found that foreign languages are used mainly for:

  • Selecting and evaluating materials (47.8%)
  • Cataloging materials (38.2%)
  • Communicating with patrons (e.g. answering reference questions) (32.8%)

How fluent do I need to be?

  • For the majority of positions requiring foreign language skills, only reading knowledge is necessary.
  • In the 2007 survey of academic librarians, reading a foreign language was rated as a skill used frequently by 42.2% of respondents, compared to speaking (11.1%) , and writing (8.7%).

Will it be worth my while?

In addition to the personal satisfaction academic librarians derive from their work, they often receive salaries and benefits comparable to teaching faculty.


Other Benefits offered by many universities and colleges often include:

  • Health/dental insurance
  • Vacation and sick time
  • Pension/retirement plans
  • Tuition remission for self and dependents
  • Release time and financial support for conferences and/or research
  • ALA Report on Employee Benefits

What's the job outlook for academic librarians?

Expected retirements of academic librarians will create opportunities for the next generation of librarians, especially in leadership positions.

Are foreign language skills important for academic librarians?

  • Academic libraries continue to purchase or subscribe to materials in foreign languages which necessitates foreign language skills.
  • From the 2007 survey of academic librarians, it was found that:
    • 29.6 % of respondents use foreign languages at least daily, and 17.7% at least weekly.
    • 35.1 % of respondents frequently wished they had better foreign language skills and 41.5 % occasionally.
    • 29.4 % of respondents would require foreign language skills for their current position, 33.8 % would make them preferred.
    • For 24 % of the respondents, foreign language skills were required in a recently opened librarian position at their institution.
  • How do I get qualified?



    • Library work experience or even volunteering is beneficial.
    • Many library science programs offer practica or internship possibilities.

    General skills/knowledge

    • Proficiency in foreign languages may be required or preferred.
    • Good communication skills
    • Able to work in teams
    • Experience managing projects
    • A standard level of technological fluency is expected.

    Consult job ads at the ALA Job List and the Chronicle of Higher Education Careers. to get an idea of other requirements.

    What do librarians have to say about their profession?

    "Librarianship is the only profession I know of where everyone I talk to says they love their job. That means something to me. And it's true: I love my job. I use every bit of knowledge and every skill from all the things I've been prior to this: people skills from bartending, computer skills from my time in IBM tech support, all the knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of reading...nothing goes to waste."--Karen Green, Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian, Columbia University

    "I like the exposure to scholarship, engagement in the intellectual life of a major university, working with students."--Laura Dale Bischof, Social Sciences Collection Development, University of Minnesota--Twin Cities.

    "I love being stretched in new directions. I regularly help students research literary criticism and movements from France, Africa, the Caribbean, and all over the Francophone world. I learn things every day, on a huge variety of topics: French cinema, the history of colonialism, the interplay of literature with other fields such as the visual arts and religion. I'm constantly challenged. It's great. And it's been really good for my French."--Karen Munro, Literature Librarian, University of Oregon

    "I thoroughly enjoy the variety of work I do in my position - general reference, selecting materials in Spanish and Portuguese, teaching general and subject specific library instruction seminars - as well as working with the Department of Spanish and Portuguese on campus."--Sean Knowlton, Humanities Reference/Instruction Librarian, Bibliographer for Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature, University of Colorado, Boulder

    "I like the the variety of duties. The ability to initiate and pursue interesting projects. The opportunity to work closely with faculty and grad students engaged in literary research and teaching. The opportunity to specialize in European and Latin American literature."--Sue Waterman, Librarian for German and Romance Languages and Literature, The Johns Hopkins University

    "What I like is the tremendous variety. It is never boring. I have a lot of autonomy. I enjoy developing and using a variety of skills -- from learning a new language to thinking about the latest models for library literacy or delivery of digital information, and applying them to help people study, research and teach history, a subject I enjoy."--Barbara Walden, European History/History Outreach Librarian, University of Wisconsin-Madison

    "Librarianship is one of the few professions I know where the emphasis is on cooperation and not competition. We train each other, collaborate together on projects, share catalog records and resources--all with the goal of helping our users find information. I love the variety of languages and subjects I encounter every day. I'm always learning."--Brian Vetruba, Catalog/Subject Librarian, Washington University in St. Louis

    I want more information.

    WESS Recruitment Email Contact List

    • West European librarians are eager to answer your questions about academic librarianship.

    WESS Job Shadowing Program

    • Gain firsthand insight into the working life of an academic librarian in your area.

    Websites/Online publications

    Blogs, Wikis, Email Discussion Groups


    • Todd Gilman. "Suspicious Minds" The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 3, 2005.
    • Todd Gilman. "Becoming a Librarian" The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 17 2003.


    I'm already a librarian--how can I help?

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This site is an outreach project of the Western European Studies Section (WESS) brought to you by the WESS Recruitment to the Profession Committee

WESSWeb > WESS Committees > Recruitment to the Profession Committee > Academic Librarianship and Foreign Languages Recruitment Page

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