LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
Librarians and Languages
by Brian Vetruba

Parlez-vous français? ¿Hablas español? Knowing one or more foreign languages has become a
valuable career asset for beginning librarians. With the ever-increasing number of immigrant groups in
the United States and the continuing importance of foreign language materials in collections, public and
academic libraries need librarians with language skills.  

Language skills in the profession

Foreign language skills are used in most of the fundamental areas of librarianship: collection
development, acquisitions, cataloging, reference, and even library administration.  

Collection development librarians need reading knowledge of languages in order to research and select
materials for a particular subject area. In obtaining foreign language materials, acquisitions librarians
may need to fall back on reading and writing skills in foreign languages to negotiate and conduct
business with jobbers in foreign countries or foreign-language distributors in the United States whose
command of English may be limited. Overseas out-of-print book dealers may be unaccustomed to
working with English-speaking librarians. Catalogers often need to deal with materials in a variety of
languages, so the more languages you know, the better. As with collection development and
acquisitions, the main focus is on reading knowledge, not speaking ability. Catalogers need to have
adequate knowledge of the language of an item to provide bibliographic descriptions (title, author,
edition, etc.) and accurate subject headings and keywords. To assist immigrants and other library users
who have limited proficiency with English, reference librarians may be asked to communicate verbally or
in writing in the user's native language. In hiring librarians and other library staff with foreign language
skills, library administrators need to have a basic understanding of the proficiency requirements of staff
positions.               

Language requirements

In scanning 2004 job ads for librarians in College & Research Libraries News and The Chronicle of
Higher Education, the emphasis is on reading knowledge, not speaking ability. Of the 32 ads found
requiring language expertise, only 8 noted a requirement or preference for librarians with some
speaking ability in a foreign language.  

Most ads asked for “working knowledge,” “reading knowledge,” or “bibliographic knowledge.”
Unfortunately, there are no standard definitions for these terms of proficiency. From my understanding,
“working knowledge” and “reading knowledge” of a language are basically synonymous and refer to
having a thorough understanding of the grammar of a language, including syntax and recognizing parts
of speech, as well as the ability to read and comprehend the main points of a text. Keep in mind, you don’
t need to understand every single word of a text; you can use a dictionary but shouldn’t need to look up
every word.   Bibliographic knowledge is lower down on the proficiency scale than reading or working
knowledge; you have understanding of the basic components of the language (e.g. articles, verbs) and
vocabulary but lack in-depth knowledge.  

Foreign language skills may also be beneficial for positions which have no stated language
requirements. For example, a collection development librarian for American history may also need to
select materials in Spanish for the library’s Hispanic community. Regardless of the position’s
requirements, language study also demonstrates to search committees and hiring officials a more well-
rounded individual who has analytical and communication skills and has been exposed to different
cultures. Given the growing diversity of most library user populations, such experience and knowledge
are beneficial.

Acquiring or brushing up on languages

As noted above, positions with language requirements usually ask for reading proficiency rather than
speaking ability. Therefore, beginning librarians or MLS students with little or no foreign language skill
should focus on acquiring reading knowledge unless their goal is a position requiring spoken fluency,
such as a public service librarian serving non-English speakers. Whereas near-native fluency can take
years of formal study, reading knowledge, depending on your language learning abilities, can usually be
gained in a significantly shorter period of time.  

The language you choose to study depends mainly on your own personal interest, career goals and
likely geographic location. Nevertheless, some supply and demand considerations apply. The most
prevalent foreign languages in most university library collections are Western European, particularly
French, German and Spanish. As a result, it is likely that there will always be a demand for librarians
who can read these languages. Since most Western European languages are closely related
linguistically to English and use the same Roman alphabet, it is usually easier for English-speakers to
become proficient in these languages. Studying non-Western-European languages, such as Hebrew,
Arabic, Russian and Asian languages, should not necessarily be discounted. With the continuing
internationalization of libraries and their collections, the importance of these languages is increasing
dramatically. Given that non-Western European languages are generally more difficult for English
speakers to learn, there are naturally fewer librarians who know them.   

One thing to keep in mind is that you need to determine what your learning style is with regard to
languages. Some of us learn better visually while others learn better by hearing and others by a
combination of the two. In addition, some of us need a formal course while others are disciplined
enough for self-study. Regardless of the style, regular study and practice are required. If you only study a
new language one day a week, your progress will be slow. You should try to gain an understanding of
grammar fundamentals and a solid vocabulary. While adding to your vocabulary, be sure to include
library-specific terminology such as “catalog,” “publisher,” and “edition”.

Courses

Reading-comprehension courses, such as those offered by many universities for graduate students, are
ideal for obtaining solid reading knowledge of a language. Besides giving an overview of grammar,
these courses usually provide exposure to texts from a variety of disciplines, thereby allowing students to
gain vocabulary on various subjects. If no reading comprehension course is offered, the next best
approach is taking a regular language course offered at a university or community college, which will
focus not only on reading, but also speaking and writing.  Online courses are also available if you can’t fit
a traditional course into your schedule. Generally avoid travel language courses since these focus
almost exclusively on speaking and vocabulary for tourists. Knowing how to say "I would like to order a
beer" in a foreign language will not get you far in most libraries!

Self-study

No matter which language you choose to study, there are likely to be numerous self-study books
available. As with courses, stay away from materials which focus on conversational skills; instead, look
for materials which provide texts to read on a variety of subjects. Newspapers and magazines are
another excellent way of gaining exposure to a language. One way to keep your language skills finely
tuned is to find a bilingual news website and test your comprehension against the English version.
Reading popular fiction such as mystery or science fiction in a foreign language can help refresh your
knowledge of a language studied years ago. Although conversational by nature and lacking higher-level
vocabulary, reading "easy" fiction will reinforce grammatical concepts and basic vocabulary, and more
importantly, build confidence with the language.  

Help! I don't know Hindi!

Once on the job, you may be confronted with languages with which you're completely unfamiliar.
Perhaps you've just received a request to order materials in Vietnamese or you have some Polish
materials you need to catalog.   Instead of immediately signing up for a language course, you may be
able to find some short-term workaround solutions. Other staff or even library patrons with language
expertise may be able to help. For example, to assist in cataloging a collection of Indian Bollywood
DVDs, our library had an Indian student help with the transliteration of Hindi and Urdu. Drawing on your
own knowledge of one or more related languages may also be of assistance in reading a language that
is completely new to you. Readers of German and English can often understand quite a bit of Dutch.
Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are all closely related. Librarian listservs are also invaluable as
language reference sources. AUTOCAT, one of the leading cataloging discussion lists, regularly
includes postings about various lesser-known languages. Online and print language dictionaries and
reference books are in abundance. One valuable print resource for European languages is C. G. Allen’s
A Manual of European Languages for Librarians (London : Bowker, 1999), which provides not only
grammatical concepts and library-specific vocabulary but also a sample text in each language and
corresponding English translations.  Although lacking the thoroughness of in-depth study, these
strategies for "getting by" in a language may be sufficient for smaller-scale language projects and may
be the most efficient solution.  

Conclusion

Given the enduring importance of collections of foreign-language materials in both academic and public
libraries, having expertise in one or more languages will help you to stand out from others in the job
market. Reading knowledge is usually all that is asked for in most positions. Even if the job has no
language requirement, knowing a foreign language may impress search committees. Acquiring and
keeping up with a language does take time, but it's time well spent.

About the Author:

Brian Vetruba is Catalog Librarian specializing in German-language materials at Washington University
in St. Louis. He also taught college-level German for three years. He’s currently a member of ACRL's
Western European Studies Section’s Recruitment to the Profession Committee (http://www.columbia.
edu/~klg19/WESS/), which is focusing on recruiting individuals with foreign language skills into the
profession.

Article published May 2005

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