So you want to be a academic librarian in Singapore? (FAQ)

Disclaimer : all opinions expressed here are my own and may not reflect my employers' views or those of the Library Association of Singapore .

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Who are you and why are you qualified to answer these questions?

Aaron here (my bio). As of 2016, I have worked as a academic librarian for a total of nine years in two different Universities in Singapore and am moderately active in the profession. So I do believe I am reasonably well informed to share about academic librarianship in Singapore.

That said, I am just one among many academic librarians in Singapore and not even close to the most senior one and I definitely don't claim to know everything about academic librarianship (my knowledge extends mostly to University Libraries but not to other types of libraries such as polytechnic libraries or very specialized libraries serving research institutes only eg.ISEAS library).

Do note, all opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect on my employers' or the Library Association of Singapore. Any comments, corrections from other academic librarians are welcome!

Why this FAQ about academic librarianship in Singapore?

Firstly, the hope here is to fill a gap for people who Google "How to become a librarian in Singapore".
A few years ago, Ivan Chew the rambling librarian from NLB (unfortunately he has since left the library industry) wrote a very informative set of blog posts about public librarianship in Singapore at NLB. 

As far as I know, no equivalent series for academic librarianship in Singapore exists. As public librarianship is very different from academic librarianship, hopefully this will help if you are considering joining us as academic librarians.

Secondly, over the years since I started blogging about academic librarianship, I've gotten a reasonable amount of questions about the profession, so I finally decided to create this page to save some time.

Thirdly, writing this FAQ (like my blogging) is also in a small way my attempt to "give back" to the profession by sharing my experience and knowledge which can hopefully draw in bright, curious young people into the profession.

What do academic librarians in Singapore really do all day?

A short answer is just read my blog. (e.g My Day in the life ..... series)

But what we really do can be really varied, so reading my blog just gives you an idea of how one librarian's career in librarianship progressed. A better bet is to look at hundreds of other librarians who participated in the day in the life of librarians series.

Ivan Chew has a pretty nice list of what public librarians do  and different academic librarians do these roles too.

But what differentiates us from public librarians is our intense focus on supporting scholarship and academics. Unlike public librarians who mostly serve the general public, our main users are

a) Students
b) Researchers & Faculty

Academic work and scholarship is a pretty specialized field, and many academic librarians who serve as liaison librarians/ research librarians / Resource librarians are tasked to support a specific school or discipline.

Such librarians usually have a interest/passion for a specific discipline or subject and help students with their research or assignments. As students tend to be novices with regards to the disciplinary tradition and practices, a well trained academic librarian can help smooth the way for such novices. This can be anything from teaching them how and where to search for articles, books and more, how to evaluate and think critically on sources to use, to how to cite properly.

The scholarly ecosystem is changing rapidly with the rise of Open access, research data management and more and academic librarians are starting to help researchers in more than merely the tradition role of purchasing books and articles.

Above shows the University of Central Florida Librarie's view of how much librarians are involved in the whole research cycle. Librarians can do work ranging from helping with grant proposals, literature review to citation management, publishing and impact assessment. 

What type of academic librarians are there in Singapore? 

Academic librarianship is always in flux, but as of writing these are some of the more common roles/positions.

a) Liaison/research/resource/subject librarians 

Already described above they tend to have strong discipline or subject knowledge in one specific area and are assigned to provide support to faculty and students in that field. In the US, it's fairly common for such librarians to have a double masters (e.g A liaison librarian in History might have a masters in History and Library Science) or even a phd in the subject they are supporting, but it's still fairly rare in Singapore.

Depending on the institution, this role can be a specialized one, while other institutions will combine this role with another function (see below). Liaison librarians tend to be but are not always out-going, extroverted people who enjoy interacting with students and staff. Often they act as the library's representative to each school or discipline in the University and often serve as the first point of contact for them.

They also man reference desks or chat services to answer queries though increasingly this is a common duty for all librarians and not restricted to Liaisons Librarians only, though these librarians are expected to be more capable of handling tough research questions.

Do note that other titles commonly encountered are reference librarians or instruction librarians or even reference & Instruction librarians.

Such positions almost always come with liaison responsibilities. A very few libraries may have specialized positions that focus purely on instructional services and specialize in teaching or information literacy.

A good Liaison librarian always has a good pulse on the community he/she serves and can help inform library decisions and directions.

b) System/IT Librarians

Very important to the proper functioning of a academic library, these people are the IT specialists. Common duties includes running , tweaking or maintaining, websites, library systems/servers to more mundane things like ensuring the RFID gates and self check machines are working , or maintaining computers in the library. Some also help other librarians with IT issues like setting up laptops etc.

Such librarians tend to have IT backgrounds (though it's possible to be self taught). Most academic libraries in Singapore use closed vendor systems and with the push to the cloud systems, the nature of work for system librarians have changed over the years.

The recent opening of library systems to allow use of APIs, gives system librarians who enjoy hacking and playing with such systems a lot more scope to work creatively.

Some system librarians have particular specializations for example some work mostly on the library discovery service , others work on the backend Library Management Systems.

IT or system librarians in academic libraries tend not to have totally unrestricted freedom though as they will need to work together with the University's IT departments on matters such as security and infrastructure matters.

On the other end of the spectrum , they will need to work with other academic librarians such as Liaison librarians on both front end and back end systems because typically the IT system librarians have little or less contact with the ultimate end users. Usability testing etc is a common task.

A good systems librarian not only as the technical chops but is constantly scanning the horizon for new technical developments. More importantly he is capable of working with less tech savvy people and able to explain concepts simply to them.

c) Acquisitions & E-resource librarians

Similar to public libraries you will need people to manage acquisitions of books and other materials. The major difference though is that for academic libraries, there is a much greater focus on electronic material. Like public libraries, managing E-Books of course is one area, but compared to public libraries, academic libraries spend a huge part of their budgets on library databases, and electronic journals (print journals are slowly dying out).

The whole scholarly literature market is a whole different ecosystem from the typical fiction or non-fiction book market in public libraries. In particular a lot of access to electronic material is based on a subscription rather than perpetual basis.

Academic librarians working in this area, such as E-resource librarians spend their time negotiating prices and licenses for access with vendors (together with input from the liaison librarians) . They keep track of what electronic material is subscribed by the library, arrange to ensure only authenticated users can access those resources and keep track on when the subscription is due for renewal. They also typical help with tracking usage of subscribed resources for purposes of assessment. In short they take care of the whole lifecycle of managing electronic resources.

Traditionally this area includes catalogers or nowadays more commonly known as metadata specialists. In the old days such staff would painstakingly create records to describe each book purchased by the library. These days the demand for such skills are lessened because aren't the book you have on hand is extremely rare, you can "Copy catalogue" the details from other shared online sources like OCLC.

The library world is moving towards more batch management of records, and most material we obtain from major publishers tend to have minimal amount of metadata, though a skilled metadata specialist can help enhance this by mass changing or altering records in batches to the desired format to upload into library systems. Ability to write macros or scripts to automate simple repetitive mindless tasks or to massage data files from one format to another is an advantage.

d) Circulation/loans management librarian

This is a role similar to what exists in public libraries. Basically the people who help with management of loans, fines and similar policies. Often but not always this role is combined with facilities management which may involve decisions on opening hours, renovations and more.

As librarians generally do not do shelving or circulation duties, the people doing so are often student assistants or library paraprofessionals (sometimes called specialists). The circulation/loans management librarian is often called upon to train and supervise these staff.

Customer service is important here, since such librarians tend to deal with angry customers upset about fines incurred.

There are other librarian roles or functions (etc some academic libraries have official positions for marketing/outreach/communications while others run it as a committee/project/department) but these are the ones that are most common in Singapore Academic libraries to my knowledge.

Aren't libraries dead/dying?

More than any profession, we librarians love to talk and worry about the death of libraries. I myself have blogged on it numerous times. But we are still here. My gut feel is as long as you are willing to evolve, learn new skills and change with the times, we need not worry about the future of libraries and librarians.

Of course eventually our robot overlords will make us all extinct, but that's true for almost all professions.

What makes a good academic librarian?

Given the diverse roles and responsibilities of academic librarians it is extremely hard to come up with a specific answer to this.

But I wager, a good academic librarian regardless of his role, needs to be user centered above all. Everything we do after all is ultimately to serve our users and make their lives easier. Academic librarians who lose sight of this and get caught in red tape or trying to hit their KPIs are missing the point.

The other quality of a good academic librarian is that he or she is extremely adaptable and always eager to learn new things. If your idea of a academic librarian is to master one skill and spend the rest of your career just doing that one thing, you are going to be in for a rude awakening.

I've been only in the academic library field for 9 years and the amount of change I have seen is staggering (you can get a sense of this by looking at the topics I blogged about over the years). For instance, among other things since Aug 2007 (for context this was just 2 months after the first iPhone launched in the US), I lived through a period where academic librarians were
  • pondering the impact and use of social media
  • pondering how to react to increased mobile online use
  • reacting to the impact of Google on user search behavior leading to the rise of a new class of library search systems - Web Scale Discovery service
  • the rise of open access
  • the data invasion - with the rise of data what roles should academic librarians play in the management and preservation of research data? The most current issue as of writing in 2016. 

I estimate around 20-40% of the things I have done is in a sense brand new compared to 9 years ago and things haven't stopped moving as I write this.

Lastly, this might be just my personal opinion, but if you just absolute HATE tech, you might not be cut out to be a librarian. I think you don't have to be a coder or a tech lover (I tend towards that) , but we live in a world where IT systems is the main way we deal with information, so you do the math if you have a dislike of technology.

What are some new hot emerging librarian roles?

Scholarly communication librarian

The oldest of the emerging roles this covers a wide spectrum of roles from helping manage institutional repertoires/CRIS, advising faculty on copyright and open access to working on impact assessment of institution/department/individual researcher.

Even newer roles relates to research data management roles, altmetrics etc.

If you have experience doing or supporting academic publishing , you will have a advantage here.

GIS Librarian/ Digitial Humanities/ Research Data librarian

Geographic information system (GIS) and Digital Humanities are hot new emerging fields and some academic libraries have started slowly creating librarian posts to support researchers in these areas. If you have experience working in these areas, you have a big advantage here.

UX Librarian

Library systems unfortunately are quite well known for poor user experience, UX (user experience) librarians are a response and recognition of this. Still fairly rare position or specialty in Singapore but is likely to become more important over time.

How many academic librarians are there in Singapore? Where are the jobs?

The main employers of academic librarians are not surprisingly from the 3 big Universities, NUS, NTU, SMU.

Other employers include SIM/SUTD/SIT/NIE etc, the polytechnic libraries and libraries serving research institutions like ISEAS library.

I estimate all in all maybe 200-300+ professional academic librarians.
You can find job opportunities advertised on sites such as the Library Association of Singapore job board or general sites like JobsDB etc.

What type of qualifications do I need to be a academic librarian in Singapore?

Unlike in some countries there is no official license or qualifying examination you need to get before you can call yourself a librarian.

That said the The Library of Association of Singapore states that you will be qualified for full personal membership in the assocation for "Persons with recognized** professional degrees / post-graduate diplomas in library and information science or equivalent professional qualifications."

In Singapore these days, most people go to for the MSc in Information Studies (Library Science track) course from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Some people also do their degrees in Australia. 

A rare few get theirs in the US, either at top library science schools like Syracuse University or the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at illinois.

Also the following guidance is stated by the library association on their website on eligibility of personal memberships.

"From time to time, there have been enquiries regarding the recognition of library science degrees from overseas. The Council wishes to state that all first degrees and post-graduate qualifications that are accredited by the respective library and information professional bodies of Australia, Canada, NZ, UK and USA are recognized by LAS as professional qualifications for librarians."

Please do not send me emails asking me if your degree from other countries not listed above is recognized in Singapore, such queries should be directed to the Library Association of Singapore.

I only have a bachelor degree and want to try out librarianship before I do my professional degree in librarianship, can I still join?

Some academic libraries do allow bachelor degree holders (any subject) to join as "Assistant librarians". Others may offer "para-professional" or "specialist" positions.

After starting work in a academic library for a while (how long depends on you and your employer), if you want to advance in the profession you must eventually do the MLIS. Some choose to do it part-time (2 years typically) or full time (1 year) in NTU.

Some academic libraries might offer scholarships (after you have started working there) for a bond.

In the above cases, you only qualify for associate membership (rather than full professional membership) at the library association of Singapore

What is the expected starting pay of a newbie librarian? What career progression or prospects can I expect?

Any librarian will tell you if you want to be rich you shouldn't be a librarian.

That is not to the say the University librarian/Director isn't paid pretty well, but as my interviewer pointed out to me at my first library job interview there can only be one of such person in each institution!

Salary is of course a very sensitive matter and hard to generalize (some institutions pay slightly more or less), but if you have a good bachelor and started working as a assistant librarian, I guess your pay could be in the region of 3K at least, maybe 3.5k (possibly more if you have masters in another subject). You probably might do a little better with a good honours by joining the civil service though.

Please do not send me emails asking me the expected salary if you have X or Y years of (library or otherwise) experience, these are questions I cannot answer.

What type of skills are in demand?

Some type of librarian roles are difficult to fill because they require very specific knowledge and skill sets.

My impression is law and medical librarians are difficult positions to fill because of the relative scarcity of graduates in law and medical life sciences compared to say in Social Sciences and Humanities.

If you have good coding skills that's also a huge draw because many of the emerging areas in librarianship require that.

The ACRL list of top trends is also a good article to read to get a sense of the hot emerging areas.

What career progression should I expect?

The career progression and official ranks varies depending on the academic libraries you work at.

But loosely speaking it goes as follows -

University librarian/Director - The top ranking librarian in the University. The person may be assisted by 1 or more Deputy/Assistant University Librarians/ Deputy Directors depending on the size of the library. These are the top management.

Heads of departments/libraries - Middle management - They have titles like head of XYZ or ranks higher than senior librarians (e.g principal librarian). They lead a department of librarians or in some cases a whole branch library eg. Law library. It's conceivably possible to reach this position after 10 years or so of very outstanding performance. This path is a management track and is not for all librarians. Some librarians who are well known and highly recognized for technical expertise but have no interest in management may attain a equivalent rank to this (so called professional track) as well though the title varies.

Senior Librarian/ Librarian - This will be you, for the first few years of your career, once you attain a professional degree (masters or postgraduate diploma). How fast you climb these ranks depends on your aptitude, achievements and more. It's fair to say the average librarian will at least reach Senior librarian or equivalent in their career and most will reach it by the 10th year if not earlier.

Assistant Librarian - This will be you if you are accepted in the library without any professional certification in librarianship (but you have completed your undergraduate degree). This is obviously an entry level position. Most academic librarians will not promote you to a full fledged librarian without getting a further degree but again exceptions exist. Obviously this progression that I outlined differs largely on the institution you are at, some academic libraries have more ranks, others use job grade numbers etc.

There are also specialists/paraprofessionals, these generally are not librarians but are considered "library staff" (the distinction is a big deal for many librarians). Most of them are non-degree holders.

How did you come to join academic libraries? What do you like about the career?

See "how did I become a librarian". Many of us are "Accidental librarians" who stumbled upon the profession, see for example the library routes project dealing how different librarians found their way into the profession. As for what I like about the career, I always liked research so having access to almost any academic article I would want is a big bonus. I think I thrive in the fact that we are in a constant state of flux, and the unique blend of technology, research and service appeals a lot to me. It's hard to get bored because of the variety of roles we play, any single day I could be interacting with students in a teaching session, or I could be in the backend working on helping implement a new system or working on a tricky research question. The learning opportunities are enormous! Many academic librarians also get the chance to present or attend overseas conferences and I personally have gone to places like London, Melbourne, New Delhi, Xi'an(China), HongKong, New Orleans etc.

I'm interested in learning more about academic libraries what should I do?  

If you aspire to be academic librarian you should really learn how to do your own research! Read blogs like mine to learn about the issues real life librarians grapple with, look at websites of library associations or at sites like Library Journal or try to find professional literature produced by academic librarians in Google Scholar. If you are currently a student in a University or Polytechnic you can try to volunteer as a student assistant to the library.

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