What is a rare book and special collections librarian and what do they do?!

Do you read all day?  Do you just shelve books at work?  How do you get to be a rare book librarian?  What is a special collections librarian?  These are just a few of the common questions rare book room staff is often asked about our profession.  We don’t mean to be mysterious, so here’s our best explanation of what we do and how we ended up in this professtion!

First, special collections and rare book librarians specialize in the unique, rare, and historically significant holdings of a library.  Examples include books, artwork, maps, photographic material, manuscripts, and archives.  Keep in mind that rare and unique does not automatically mean valuable in terms of money!  A single photo of mid-19th century Buffalo may not be worth much money, but its historical value make it a unique and precious object.

To handle, exhibit, interpret, collect, and describe objects such as these, specialized training is imperative.  Librarians [all kinds] have an advanced master’s degree.  Librarianship offers many specializations: children’s services, cataloging, and information technology are just a few.  How to choose?  Most choose a path based on their passion.  For those of us in special collections, rare and historical books and manuscripts are what we love.  But training doesn’t stop there, all librarians take extensive continuing education courses throughout their career.  After all, the way we access and use information changes each day, and being an information professional is what we do!

Rare book and special collections librarians wear many hats.  Each special collection itself is unique, which dictates the training and skills of staff.  In our own Grosvenor Rare Book Room, these are just a few of the skills and services our staff provide:

reference, cataloging, digitization, Web tools [like this blog!], exhibit design and curation, xml coding, tour guide, copywriter, foreign language interpreter, grant writer, project coordinator, manager, preservation librarian, conservator, general office management, collection development, preparation and maintenance of budgets, teacher, historian, program and event creation, and archivist.

Learn more about rare book and special collections librarians:

  • Terry Belanger, founding director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, wrote a great article on rare book librarians.  Although more than 20 years old, the article still has great information.
  • Library Trends, summer 2003 focused on special collections.   A great resource.
  • Librarians, different kind of.  View here.
  • Interview with Jessica Pigza, New York Public library rare book librarian.

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