LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
Personal Perceptions of Information Responsibilities by Librarians and Archivists
by Jodi Kearns & Rhonda Rinehart

Anecdotally, we have observed in assorted situations the personally prescribed distinctions in the
descriptions of information roles and responsibilities of archivists and librarians, each either not
acknowledging the roles of the other or emphasizing the differences rather than the similarities between
them.

Consider commonly perceived similarities and differences. Both archivists and librarians usually (but
not always) hold a master’s in library and information science or some permutation of the degree. They
both work with documents and information seekers, though variations in document types and patrons
served are widespread for both. Both archivists and librarians are also subject to idiosyncratic
typecasting by those within and outside the professions. Librarians, for example, are not all bun-
sporting, comfortable shoe-wearing cat enthusiasts who wear their glasses on chains around their
necks, pencils in their hair, and who enjoy shushing people. Archivists are not all knit sweater-wearing,
protective glove-carrying hoarders who work in secluded, cold, dark spaces, hiding in fortresses of grey
boxes, content to be unsociable unless to keep someone from chewing gum near historic papers. Even
collaborative social media can reflect these perceptions; LISwiki.org describes archivists and librarians
as distinctive, especially in “mode of dress.”.

A colleague on the search committee for a special collections librarian at an academic institution
reported to us with disbelief that an interviewee, when asked what she might contribute to the
preservation and access of a rare book collection, responded with a defiance resembling disgust that
she is “an archivist, not a librarian!”  In this article, we aim to dispel some common myths that
supposedly divide archivists and librarians.

To test our theory that the information roles of librarians and archivists are more similar than they are
different, we developed a simple survey targeting respondents who could identify themselves as either
archivists or librarians. When asked to select from the randomized list (archivist, librarian, or other) in
response to the request, “Please select the item that best describes your role in the information
professions,” respondents who selected other were not asked to state their roles. We received several
emails from respondents who told us they were professors, teachers, students, paraprofessionals, and
information technologists, for example. Though some seemed a little disgruntled that we were not
interested in their opinions at this time, our focus was on those who could and did choose either
archivist or librarian.

Of the 166 respondents whose responses we could include, (some responded to the first question and
then answered no additional questions, for example), 96 self-identified as librarians and 85 as
archivists. Each was given three chances to describe her or his information roles to us in response to
the statement, “Please fill in the blank for up to three responses.” The three blanks are presented as
1.        It is my responsibility to _______ information. [first choice]
2.        It is my responsibility to _______ information. [second choice]
3.        It is my responsibility to _______ information. [third choice].”
Respondents could fill in zero to three blanks.

The survey results were interesting and telling. Since we allowed (encouraged, really) respondents to
use their own words to fill in the blanks, responses were not driven by any sort of thesaurus or controlled
vocabulary. We used the Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology of the Society of American
Archivists, the Oxford American Thesaurus of Current English, and additional dictionaries and thesauri
as needed from Oxford Reference Online to categorize and reduce volunteered responses to the fewest
terms possible. During our term analysis, we found nine observable categories within our 422 usable
responses: Access, Collect, Evaluate, Manage, Preserve, Process, Research, Teach, and Outliers.  Here
we show the nine categories and their synonyms and qualifiers in the original words of the respondents
(spelling corrected).

Access: access, circulate, consult, deliver, digitize, direct users to, disseminate, distribute, find, give out,
guide, help, help people find, locate, make available, offer, provide, release, respond to requests for,
retrieve, round up, serve, share, supply, transmit, transfer, unite, unite (patrons with)

Collect: acquire, collect, gather, secure

Evaluate: appraise, assess, check, evaluate, filter, identify, interpret, purge, select, weed

Manage: ensure there is staff and facilities, manage, purchase up to date and useful materials

Preserve: archive, maintain, preserve, protect, safeguard, store.

Process: arrange, catalog, create [assumes creating descriptive data], describe, document, index, log,
organize, prepare [assumes preparing descriptive data], process, synthesize

Research: discover, learn, research

Teach: facilitate, present, promote, share how to appropriately cite, teach

Outliers are those terms we could not fit into a broader, established category. They are: create an
infrastructure for, harness, initiate and preserve copyright, navigate, remember, use, and utilize.

The assignment of categories, then, enabled us to reduce the responses into observable connections
and distinctions. The survey results show that 35.61% of archivists’ responses and 46.82% of librarians’
responses indicate that terms falling under Access are their information responsibilities. This means
that both archivists and librarians list Access most often as their information responsibility. Second and
third to both archivists and librarians are Preserve and Process, though in reverse order. Collect and
Evaluate are fourth and fifth, in reverse order. Research and Manage are both last, in reverse order. In
fact, the only noteworthy differences we see in these results is that librarians consider Teach a higher
priority and archivists consider Collect a higher priority.

These results confirm for us that we are not as dissimilar as professionals as some, even within the
professions, may perceive. Perhaps archivists spend more time collecting documents while librarians
spend more time teaching information seekers how to find and apply information to a particular need,
but essentially we are both concerned foremost with access, processing, and preservation of
information. ,. Materials and patrons aside –for even within the nation’s libraries or archives, materials
and patrons vary significantly – we assert with confidence that our personal perceptions of our
information roles and responsibilities are alike, and that the professional foci are similar (mode of dress
notwithstanding).

About the Authors

Jodi Kearns is an Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State
University, and American Psychological Association Digital Projects Manager at the Center for the History
of Psychology at the University of Akron. She earned her MS in Library and Information Science in 1999
and her PhD in Interdisciplinary Information Science in 2001, both from the University of North Texas.

Rhonda Rinehart is the Manager of Special Collections at the Center for the History of Psychology at the
University of Akron. She earned her MLIS from Kent State University’s School of Library and Information
Science in 2005.  

Article published  November 2010

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.