I’m not a librarian. Nor have I ever played one on TV (although I did once play a doctor in a promotional video for a previous job). But for the past 3 ½ years, I have had an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to work in a large Research I-level university library system through my role as Courseware Instructional Designer. I’ve even gotten to pretend to be a librarian on occasion when I led library resource sessions for the Critical Writing Program.
On my last day at Penn Libraries, I’m reflecting on the people with whom I’ve worked and why they make this place so special. Here are the top five things I’ve learned about Penn librarians:
1. They are diverse. Today’s librarians defy the stodgy, straitlaced, “shushing” stereotypes of old. Penn Libraries’ commitment to bringing in staff with a multitude of different backgrounds and expertise is evident through its Group on Library Diversity (GOLD). Modern librarians ride skateboards, have tattoos, perform mixed martial arts, and come from every generation. They may still wear glasses, but they’re likely from Warby Parker, and instead of warning you to be quiet, they are encouraging you to talk with your group as you put together a closed-circuit sensory touch maze or print 3D models.
2. They know about a lot more than books.
The librarians I’ve met are pros at much more than telling you how to find a book in the stacks; they are skilled data scientists. They understand how to compile and analyze data (in ways that are sometimes beyond my comprehension), but contribute to rich and creative research. They have expertise in things like digital humanities and information literacy and are readily available and approachable to share this knowledge with patrons. Some librarians at Penn even work in spaces without books at all (!)—instead focusing on curating artifacts, design materials, and makerspace technologies.
3. They are very involved in teaching and learning, not just research.
While I expected librarians to be expert researchers, I was surprised to learn how integrated they are in the pedagogical side of teaching. They support face-to-face, blended, and online learning environments, and faculty frequently reach out to them with questions about learning goals and instructional design. Many librarians are well-versed in specific technologies that support learning, such as Canvas, and in education theory, including universal design for learning. One of the most interesting examples of Penn librarians supporting faculty, staff, and students in innovative ways comes by way of PennImmersive, an initiative that explores the use of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality in higher education.
4. They know how to have fun.
I’m not saying that librarians sometimes have dance parties and take field trips to play with dogs, but I’m also not saying that they don’t do these things.
5. They care deeply.
If there’s one thing I’m taking away from my experience working with librarians, it’s that they have a profound respect for the Penn community and beyond. Librarians are very committed to creating safe spaces for every type of learner and are heavily concerned with student well-being (take the Penn Libraries’ Dog Days events and New Student Orientation program, for example). Librarians were behind the Data Refuge initiative to save climate change data, they support green campus programs, have petitioned for greater open access publications and resources, created maps for Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Maria, and have championed for increased voter registration. They are deeply committed to accessibility, equitable education, data privacy, and security. Lastly, I have yet to meet a Penn librarian who is not also a devoted animal lover. Maybe some day Van Pelt will finally get a library cat!