Become a Special Collections Librarian: Education and Career Roadmap

Mar 11, 2020

Learn about a career as a special collections librarian. Research the job duties and the education and training requirements to make an informed decision about starting a career managing special collections.

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Becoming a Special Collections Librarian

Degree Level Master's degree; doctoral degree required for some positions
Degree Field Library science or closely related field
Key Skills Cataloging and retrieving materials; assisting library patrons; researching new library materials; writing; use of information retrieval software, barcode scanners, and microfiche readers
Median Salary (2018) $59,050 (for all librarians)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Special collections librarians help individuals locate and use library materials pertaining to a specific field or area of study, like law or medical care. These professionals typically hold a graduate degree and have a keen understanding of not only library technology, but also their special collections field.

Most special collections librarians have a master's degree in library science or a closely related field, though a doctoral degree may be required for some positions. Aside from helping patrons, these librarians also catalogue and retrieve materials as well as research new library materials.

Step 1: Earn a Master's Degree in Library Science

Prospective special collections librarians are typically required to hold at least a master's degree in library science from a program that has been accredited by the American Library Association. Although students admitted to this graduate program must have at least a bachelor's degree, no particular undergraduate field of study is required.

Students may need to take courses such as cataloguing, library systems, information databases and library management. They may also learn the principles, concepts and fundamentals of a diverse range of subjects, such as monographic publications; hierarchical, hypertext and flat file database models; archive preservation; and computer hardware.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

Special collections librarians are responsible for ordering and maintaining information and items of particular importance to an organization. They may write abstracts, arrange periodical indexes, issue information to academics and professionals, conduct research and compile bibliographies.

The increasing prevalence of computerized tools for maintaining library databases means that many special collections librarians will also need to possess a range of advanced technological skills, such as navigating information retrieval software, using barcode scanners and operating microfiche readers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for librarians in 2018 was $59,050. Employment growth of 6% was predicted by the BLS during the 2018-2028 decade. In addition, archivists who maintain valuable historical documents and records often have degrees in library science. Faster job growth of 9% was predicted for archivists during this period by the BLS, and the median annual salary for these professionals in 2018 was $52,240.

Step 3: Consider Doctoral Studies

Prospective special collections librarians interested in managing major collections may need to obtain a Ph.D. in Library Science. Applicants to this program are required to hold at least a master's degree. The Ph.D. program in library science is research-intensive. Some subjects that students may be required to take include research issues, information policy and ethics and qualitative research.

Step 4: Join a Professional Organization

Special collections librarians seeking to enhance their career opportunities may consider joining professional organizations, such as the Special Libraries Association, the American Association of Law Libraries and the American Library Association. The benefits of membership within these organizations may include the opportunity to exchange information with a network of peers and access to various professional development tools.

Special collections librarians help individuals locate and use library materials pertaining to a specific field or area of study, like law or medical care. They need at least a master's degree in library science, though earning a doctoral degree may be required for some positions.

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