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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Biblical Studies and Careers in Academic LibrarianshipW. Gerald Heverly

Academic librarianship offers interesting, rewarding career opportunities for individuals with an advanced degree in biblical studies. Although it might not seem obvious at first, there are several areas of library work that draw on the skills and knowledge acquired during a graduate program. The biblical scholar's proficiency in ancient and modern languages is especially attractive to academic or research libraries. A brief overview of the kinds of work that librarians do shows why this is so.

Acquiring materials is a major undertaking in academic libraries. Subject specialists, sometimes called selectors or bibliographers, build a library's collection by ordering books, journals, CD's, and other materials in disciplines with which they are familiar. In addition, subject specialists maintain their section of a library's collection by reviewing titles for preservation treatment, replacement, offsite storage, and withdrawal. Increasingly, subject specialists also help create and curate digital research collections such as APIS ( ), a virtual library of papyri that includes biblical texts.

Because many disciplines in the humanities still rely on scholarship published in foreign languages, subject specialists who cover those fields usually have at least reading proficiency in the relevant languages. The more a subject specialist knows about a discipline, the better prepared s/he is to order materials for it. Consequently, many subject specialists hold an advanced degree in a field related to their job. A biblical scholar, for example, could be employed as the subject specialist for religious studies, classics, ancient Near Eastern studies, or a combination of such fields.

After material has been acquired, it needs to be organized so that it can be found easily. Cataloging is, therefore, another central activity in libraries. Catalogers create on-line records for the items a library acquires. In doing so, they analyze and describe material according to established national standards, following a systematic structure designed to help library users locate information. The records they produce make possible the computerized library catalogs familiar to anyone who uses research libraries. A cataloger must have working knowledge of the language in which an item is written if it is to be cataloged correctly. Many catalogers, therefore, have reading proficiency in several languages, including sometimes ancient ones.

Public services, also called user services or reader services, are another important component of an academic library's activities. Public services librarians assist users in locating and evaluating information, provide research consultation (in-depth or specialized assistance), and conduct library tours and classes on the use of library resources. Along with subject specialists and catalogers, public services librarians constitute most of the professional staff in an academic or research library. Some librarians work exclusively in one of these three capacities.

More common, however, is a mix of duties. For example, a library's Slavic languages cataloger might also serve as its subject specialist for Eastern European Studies. Another combination consists of collection-related duties and public service responsibilities. Under this frequent arrangement, a subject specialist also works at the reference desk, instructs individuals or classes in the use of the library, and consults with people about their research via e-mail, on the telephone, or in person.

In most academic libraries, a department exists specifically to care for precious materials such as rare books, manuscripts, and archives; it is usually called special collections. Some special collections departments have concentrations of material relevant to biblical studies, such as manuscripts and early printed editions of the Bible or the personal papers of distinguished scholars. The University of Michigan's special collections department is one example of this. In addition, special collections often house large numbers of rare books and manuscripts in other subjects written in ancient or modern languages.

By now, the relevance of an advanced degree in biblical studies to an academic library career will be clearer. Indeed, the study of ancient languages hones analytical skills and attention to detail, both of which are essential for library work. Furthermore, graduate study of biblical literature fosters not only in-depth knowledge of the ancient Near East and its languages, but also reading knowledge of French and German, languages for which there is a steady demand in research libraries. Anyone who can read these modern languages, even with a dictionary, has a distinct advantage when applying for a job as a subject specialist, cataloger, or curator of special collections. In addition, teaching experience gained during graduate school is good preparation for work in public services. Assisting readers at the reference desk and instructing groups or individuals in the use of the library require the kinds of communication skills sharpened by classroom teaching.

A degree in biblical studies will, however, normally not be enough to land a library job. For most professional positions, an M.L.S. (Master of Library Science) is required in addition to any stipulated subject or language expertise. As the shortage of academic librarians grows, institutions may become more flexible about requiring the M.L.S. for certain entry-level positions. In any event, both the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) report nervously that academic librarians are in short supply. Applicants proficient in ancient and modern languages are especially sought. Thus, graduate students and other biblical scholars contemplating alternative careers to teaching may find it worth their while to explore librarianship. ACRL's Western European Studies Section, to which many subject specialists belong, maintains a web site for anyone wishing to learn about the kinds of library careers open to people with foreign language skills and subject expertise: .

I am grateful to the American Philological Association for permission to use material here from an article on library careers that he published in Amphora 5.1 (spring 2006).

W. Gerald Heverly, Librarian for Classics, Hellenic Studies, and Philosophy, New York University

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Citation: W. Gerald Heverly, " Biblical Studies and Careers in Academic Librarianship," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online:


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