Literary Hub

Librarians of the 21st: The Ultimate Superheroes of Research


There’s a reason why, when you meet a librarian for the first time, she sometimes looks hesitant to tell you what she does for a living—we’re far too used to sharing our profession and hearing that libraries are dead because of Google. (They’re always shocked to hear that libraries are actually far more alive because of Google.) And even regular library patrons are sometimes shocked by the amount of research and reference that are part of a library’s daily work. In this essay, Stefanie Maclin-Hurd uses her wide range of library jobs to demonstrate that for all its changes, librarianship in the 21st century is still very much about research.

–Stephanie Anderson


I learned research before I learned to catalog, if one considers digging through websites as a high school student to be research. When considering the whys of being a librarian, research was something I knew I wanted to do. Not just because I loved to learn, but because I needed to know the reasons why behind each thing I learned. If I read a book, I needed to know what was true and what was enhanced, and research was the way to do it. In learning how to be a librarian, this need to know, this thirst for knowledge, was welcome. I studied archives in library school, and loved that I was able to search for the meanings and history behind the objects I was studying. Research is something which has followed me into every library and every archives job I’ve held. Research has made me a better librarian.

For example, in an archives internship, I re-catalogued shipping logs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. In addition to researching the vessel the logs had come from and its history on the water, this was my first chance to use the ancestry database to do historical research. The museum wanted to know whether the captain for the logs I was currently archiving was related to the captain of another ship, whose logs were also in the library’s collection. Armed with only a name and some dates, I was eventually able to track down a marriage certificate, being able to link the wife to this second captain by her maiden name. They were related.

This may seem like a minor project, but it had lasting effects. The museum had multiple shipping logs in their collections, and they wanted to better link items to make research easier. By linking multiple items, they make things more fulfilling for any prospective researchers of their collections. This research, this digging into the primary sources and materials, seeing what was made available by the power of modern technology, was inspiring, both because it added an additional layer to the material itself, but also because I delved into the more interpersonal relations of the collections. Given the rise in genealogical research, the skills behind this type of work are more important than ever. I’ve used these skills in every job I have had since.


An MS in Library and Information Science is, at its core, a research degree. In studying library science, you learn how to investigate primary sources, how to find materials, and how to search catalogs. In certain specializations, you may also learn how to identify and describe items, or how to preserve items. In my own MLIS program, I studied skills like cataloging, photograph preservation, and art documentation. Whether we are helping a patron to find a book, or investigating the historical significance of a particular item, we must research. Both queries use the same MLIS, but in different ways.

Unsurprisingly, working in an academic library, I taught students how to research. I taught them how to dig into databases and primary sources. We talked about how Wikipedia was not always the best source, despite its convenience, in part because it was editable by anyone. Even while the articles required primary sources and research to be written, once written, anyone could go in to make changes and those changes were not always vetted. We talked about how to cite sources, and how to determine if the articles were scholarly and/or peer-reviewed. We discussed finding news articles online, and checking one’s source materials to ensure what was being cited was accurate.

But research skills also have a place outside academic libraries. Being very active in the Special Libraries Association, the primary professional organization for librarians and information professionals outside the traditional library setting, I have learned how to use those same research skills in non-traditional librarian jobs in digital publishing. I have worked with photographs, information and digital literacies, and in geology. Working for a digital publisher, I researched the collections of multiple libraries, helping librarians to build and troubleshoot their online catalogs. I needed to understand the type of metadata each used, and where to find things like the call number or publisher information in the book’s record. Different libraries use different types of metadata, and I needed to understand the nuances of each to best understand their collections. I needed to be able to explain this information to them. I needed to have an innate understanding of multiple vendors and their catalogs, and how to locate items in each one. I needed to keep track of multiple customers and cases, ready to respond to the smallest inquiry.

This position taught me much about being a librarian. I’ve often described it as being a librarian’s librarian. It gave me a new understanding of technology, and how libraries and technology interacted, including how to set up search alerts and how to read the coding of things which needed to be fixed. This all took research. Not just in the information I gleaned for my customers, but also in my own understanding of the materials. I was constantly learning and improving my skills, always updating how I worked to make searches more efficient. This was research in a different way. This was not teaching how to research; this was understanding how to research.

In understanding how to research, you begin to understand your sources. I gained an innate understanding of many databases, which even in teaching the students at the academic library, I never learned. This was gaining knowledge in how the card catalog worked, and the logic of how parts of it—the books, the films, the odds and ends, which the library offers—were revealed through the search function. As Neil Gaiman once said, “Google can bring you back a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” In order to find the right answer, the librarian must understand how the search works, as well as the results. In helping to build catalogs, in explaining the logarithms behind them to our patrons, I came to understand research even more deeply than before.

In my current position, where I am embedded in the geology department of an oil and gas company, I need to both teach and understand research. I took this position knowing very little of geology. I needed to research to understand the difference between the types of maps, and to be able to identify key words in the articles, papers, and reports I work with. I’m using the same databases I taught the students how to search, the same databases I worked with to build and troubleshoot the catalogs at the digital publishing company. I’m still working with that digital publishing company, but this time I’m the customer, and I’m working to improve search alerts, and to improve the results returned in my database searches.


It is all research. The same research I learned by writing papers in high school and college, citing my sources along the way; the same research skills I learned and built upon in library school; the same research skills I have taken into every job, and every project, and have continued to build upon. And while in my current position I may not have traditional patrons, I still need to be able to understand research. Whether it takes five minutes or five hours, and whether it’s at a corporation or in the archives, I still need to know the correct sources and search terms to use to find my answers.

I invite you to visit your libraries, and not just your public library. While so much is now available online, there is still something unique about visiting the library to see the materials offered. Talk to your librarians. Whether you are looking for new fiction to read for pleasure, or need help with a project, they have information at their fingertips that’s often not available through Google. Libraries, at their core, are about research. Teaching it, learning it, doing it.

How can we help you?

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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