Presentation of Competency B

Competency B: describe and compare the organizational settings in which library and information professionals practice.


The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries. – Carl Sagan, Cosmos (p. 233).

Library and information professionals can work in any environment where it is important to manage the organization, storage, and retrieval of digital, physical, and archival material. Through my work experience, studies, and by connecting with other information professionals, I have learned about the following types of libraries:

  • Public
  • Academic
  • Private
  • Archive
  • School
  • Parochial/Diocesan
  • Hospital
  • Prison
  • Corporate
  • Government
  • Pop-up

The following tables will describe and compare each type of library.

Audience Collections focus Funding Typical number of branches Example institution
Public Taxpayers of a specific locality A wide range Taxes, donors, grants, membership fees for out-of-area users Anywhere from 1 to hundreds, depending on population Chicago Public Library
Academic Faculty, staff, and students of a higher-education institution Focuses on material needed for classe, degrees, and departments Student fees, taxes if public, grants, donors Anywhere from one to a few, depending on institutional needs Harold Washington College library
Private Specific-topic researchers Focuses on one or a few specific topics the founder chose Donors, grants, membership fees, admittance fees One Newberry Library
Archive Specific-topic researchers Focuses on specific topics founder chose Taxes if public, donors, membership fees, admittance fees, grants One Douglas County Historical Society
School Primary or secondary school students and their teachers Focuses on primary or secondary research needs Taxes if public, student fees, grants, donors One Ogden Elementary School library
Parochial/ diocesan Members of a church and/or diocese Focuses on faith education Tithes, grants, donors One per church and/or one per diocese Archdiocese of Omaha library
Hospital Medical professionals and/or patients Focuses on medical research and/or popular materials Taxes if public, hospital profits, donors One University of Chicago Medical Center library
Prison Inmates Focuses on legal resources and poplar materials Taxes, grants One Cook County Jail
Corporate Corporation employees Focuses on needs of corporation, and corporate archives Corporate profits One ConAgra library
Government Government departmental employees Focuses on need of government department Taxes, grants One Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) library
Pop-up Anyone, typically those in a locality Anything, depends on donations Book and shelving donations One or more, depending on strength of community Occupy Seattle Library

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. I am certain that there are additional types and subtypes of libraries and archives that I did not address. Still, it provides an idea of the variety of information environments that require the assistance of a librarian.

Competency Development

Two other aspects I did not discuss in the Introduction section are management and personnel, since these two require a little bit more explanation, and are based off of my personal experience. I have been very fortunate to have had the chance to visit, work at, volunteer, or tour a wide variety of libraries, and I have noticed that the management and staffing of a library greatly depends on the size of the library and its budget.

Smaller libraries, such as the Archdiocese of Omaha Library, are staffed by only a part-time paraprofessional. This paraprofessional fulfills all the needed library roles, including acquisitions, cataloging, shelving, organizing, providing reference assistance, and marketing. While this particular position is paid, other smaller libraries are often run only by volunteers who may or may not have professional library training. This makes it difficult to brainstorm ideas for improving services when there is no one else to bounce ideas off of. In the case of the Archdiocese of Omaha Library, my friend, who was the paraprofessional there for a while, asked me to come in as a consultant to help her figure out how to organize the library in a more user-friendly way.

In the best case scenario, such as in the case of the Loyola University Museum of Art, volunteer catalogers are library school students. When my church is done with renovations, I will be able to volunteer my skills to put the library back together after it had fallen into disorganization and had been boxed up for years. Other libraries are able to function with regular volunteers, such as small church libraries or pop-up libraries that one may see in an urban environment or as a result of an Occupy movement.  These libraries may be managed by a non-library professional, such as a pastor, departmental manager, or museum director. In the case of Occupy libraries, such as the one that sprung up in Seattle during their library furlough week, they are collectively managed.

It stands to reason that the larger the library, the greater the need for more specialized positions such as that of director, librarian, cataloger, and library assistant. Small-town public libraries, local archives, and small private or prison libraries may have all of the above positions in one location, and staff members may need to take on multiple tasks. For example, according to a job description at the City Colleges of Chicago, a level of library assistants must be able to manage circulation, catalog books, and assist with acquisitions since library work is done separately at each individual college library. In contrast, library assistants at a branch library may do solely shelving and circulation work, since there are other staff members able to do more specialized tasks either at the branch itself, or at the central library.

Depending on the size of the institution, there is frequently only one large academic library instead of numerous smaller branches, because it is more cost effective to have one large building and because the entire target audience is within the same small stretch of campus. Some larger and research-oriented institutions, such as the University of Chicago, have separate libraries for different subject areas or purposes. For example, the Regenstein Library is the general humanities library, while D’Angelo and Crerar contain legal and science resources, respectively.

Similarly, the level of specificity in reference librarian specialties depends on how large the library is. In public libraries, reference librarians are usually generalists who answer a wide variety of questions that may arise. In academic libraries, the reference responsibilities are broken down into broad college divisions such as “Humanities” or into departmental levels such as “Communications.” Because of the nature of academic libraries, subject-specific reference librarians are needed to provide in-depth and knowledgeable assistance for student and faculty needs.


In a discussion post, I compared the Loyola University Chicago and University of Chicago libraries in several areas using information gathered from the Library Statistics Program, hosted by the National Center for Education Statistics. It yielded interesting benchmark comparisons although the two libraries’ Carnegie classification differed slightly.

In a paper, I provided an overview of the history, organization, collections, and user demographics of both the Cambridge University and the University of Chicago libraries, comparing and contrasting their approach in handling their special rare books collections.

Finally, in the paper, “Good Answers Quickly,” I compared reference services at two different public libraries and an academic library. It illustrates the similarities of the reference transaction and the differences in reference quality and the types of questions one might ask the librarians.

Concluding Remarks

There is truly a wide variety of environments where library and information professionals can work. Nearly every institution requires adequate organization, storage, and retrieval of digital, physical, and archival material.  The particulars of the library or archive’s access, management, organization, and audience depends on the library’s subject foci and its organizational goals. These organizational differences has an impact on the information professional’s duties, professional development, and career options.


Loyola University Chicago and University of Chicago data comparison

Cambridge University and University of Chicago Special Collections Rare Books collections comparison

Good Answers Quickly


Sagan, C. (1985). Cosmos. New York: Random House Digital, Inc. p. 233. Retrieved from: Google Books.


Updated: October 13, 2012