Thursday, April 16, 2015

So, You Want to be a Science Librarian?, by Lydia Fletcher


I have a master’s degree in medieval studies and I went to library school to study rare books and archives, so when I told my friends and family that I became a science librarian they got confused. They asked if I’m happy, or if I’m just doing this “temporarily” until I get a rare books job. It’s understandable—I spent ten years of my life studying and talking incessantly about medieval studies.

So what happened?

I tend to refer to myself as “The Accidental Science Librarian” (and I talked a little bit about why a couple of years ago on my own blog). The short version is that when I first considered librarianship, I stumbled upon a job in the outreach department of a health sciences library. Then, when I moved on to graduate school for my MSIS, I ended up working the UT Physics, Math, & Astronomy Library (where my primary qualifications were having reference desk experience and attending Space Camp as a kid). I have to admit I mostly took that job because they offered one of the few available Graduate Assistant positions my first semester. So, even though my courses at the UT iSchool were split between archives/rare books/conservation and general academic librarianship, I was “apprenticed” into science librarianship as my career. And it really has become my career, solidified in my first two professional positions as Math, Physics & Astronomy (and Classics) Librarian at UC Irvine and now as Scholarly Resources Librarian for Science at UT-San Antonio. And I love it. I really do.

In my last two years as a professional, I've gone from "maybe I want to do this" to "doing this" to "I LOVE doing this.” My days are never dull—I get questions on everything from gaseous diffusion methods for uranium enrichment, to the energy efficiency of fireplaces, to helping students find information on eating lower on the food chain (complete with “thank you” cookies made with cricket flour. Yum!). I also serve on the UTSA IACUC. It’s exciting work and it’s fun.

At heart, however, I’m a deeply practical person, so I’m here today not just to talk about my personal journey towards science librarianship, but to also talk about the most important thing in any young and/or potential librarian’s mind: jobs. STEM research is a massive industry in higher education and there’s a growing need for librarians who can support it: from pure liaison roles for science departments (like mine) to GIS and data specialists.

I’ll admit my evidence is purely anecdotal (other science librarians or people who have hired science librarians, please feel free to chime in) and entirely concerned with academic libraries, but in my experience, positions for science librarians attract FAR fewer candidates than positions for humanities librarians. I recently heard a statistic from a colleague that for a humanities librarian position at their institution there were more than 200 applications. For a science librarian position at the same university there were only about 50.

And, again anecdotally, it seems as if competent librarians with a humanities background, a basic understanding of science topics, and a willingness to learn are being hired into these positions. Last year at STELLA 14 in Stanford, I chatted with several young librarians who were in STEM subject liaison positions but had humanities backgrounds.

I’m hoping to begin work this year on a research project with a colleague to collect anecdotal and quantitative evidence of hiring trends for science librarian positions. The ultimate goal is to supplement the already-great resources for professionally developing young science librarians—or anyone who finds her- or himself supporting science departments due to staffing changes, hiring freezes, or budget cuts.

All right, have I got you interested? Are you considering a career as a science librarian? Don’t be afraid—the learning curve is pretty steep, and involves a lot of “what a fascinating research question! Do you mind if I look into it and get back to you in a day or so?” If you’re still interested, here’s a rundown of some professional development opportunities for young and old science librarians—and would-be library school students!

And if all else fails, please feel free to ask me directly!

Lydia Fletcher is the Science Librarian at the University of Texas, San Antonio. She blogs at Book Archaeologist and tweets at @lamfletcher.


  1. Science Librarian Boot Camp Se will be in Athens GA at the University of Georgia in July of 2016. More info coming soon.

  2. Replies
    1. Oh, cool! I hadn't heard about that one. :D Thanks for sharing!