The Librarian Shortage Myth & Blaming Library School

Don’t blame library school if you cannot find a professional job. You are an information professional. Did you not research the state of the job market?

I made that very blunt point in a 2011 blog post: “I graduated from a top library school.” Yeah, so what? – It’s generated a lot of comments since then and struck a nerve with some readers.

One person commented:

I do not agree about NOT blaming the ALA and the school. There is a lot of false information put out by the ALA ..remember all those retiring librarians. Also as a male you are at an advantage. I have seen some really dopey male librarians hired at our library I asked one about a book I was looking for and he googled and turned the screen and told me read this stuff. When I persisted he pointed to an elderly female librarian and told me to ask her because she’s really good at that stuff. This after being told that library only hires the creme de la creme. Guess that creme got stale googling. You can be all positive because you got a job. People have done all you suggested and still have no job in a library or have a part time job in a para professional area. There is an article in the Library Journal called that lucky few – referring to people like you who got a library job.

Blaming Library School

Looking back at my original “blunt” advice, I stand behind my underlying principle: You are responsible for the usefulness of your education and the decisions you make. Putting aside the reader’s baseless “male librarian” comment, I DO agree with the reader on this point: some library schools and the American Library Association have marketed this “myth” of a librarian shortage.

I graduated from library school in 2002 when this “myth” was being pushed. Take a look at this 2000 press release from the University of North Texas on the nationwide librarian shortage. Here’s a similar story from SUNY Buffalo from 2002. Even the Bush administration was involved with this 2003 news release from “first librarian” Laura Bush. On the ALA website, you can still see (outdated) vestiges of this thinking:

…these sources indicate that there is a need for sustained effort to recruit new people into the LIS professions and to retain those who are working in libraries today. As large numbers of LIS professionals reach retirement age, there is a corresponding need for new people to replace them.

However, as information professionals, we should know not to take things at face value. Looking back at all of the stories about a “librarian shortage” from the early 2000’s, I decided to pull my library’s print (read: dusty) copy of the 2002-2003 Occupational Outlook Handbook. The outlook for librarians is as follows:

Applicants for librarian jobs in large cities or suburban areas will face competition, while those willing to work in rural areas should have better job prospects.

and…

Employment of librarians is expected to grow more slowly than average for all occupations over the 2000-2010 period. The increasing use of computerized information storage and retrieval systems continues to contribute to slow growth in demand for librarians.

[Source: 2002-2003 Occupational Outlook Handbook (pgs. 188, 190)]

I’d call this a pretty measured response from an authoritative source. Don’t you think?

More current, the 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handout certainly isn’t promoting a shortage of librarians:

Employment of librarians is expected to grow by 7 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations.

and…

Jobseekers may face strong competition for jobs, especially early in the decade, as many people with master’s degrees in library science compete for a limited number of available positions. Later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings.

[Note: bold emphasis is mine. Source: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/librarians.htm#tab-6]

Overabundance of MLSs

So, are library schools churning out too many MLSs? – probably. Take a look at this insightful analysis by Brett Bonfield from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. The one thing to remember: If you throw out the noble goals of education and focus on the bottom line, it’s the library school’s job to get butts in the seats (tuition). Nothing more. Nothing less. Other disciplines have focused more attention on this. For example, news of job woes among law school graduates have resulted in law schools capping admissions. Should library schools do the same?

The librarian job crisis – both unemployment and UNDERemployment – isn’t about library schools. In the words of political strategist James Carville: it’s the economy, stupid. I’m not just talking about the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, either. I graduated library school during the post 9/11 economic slump. In my mind, much of the 2000s was a general economic malaise that contributed to library budget cuts, unfilled openings, and senior librarians who have deferred retirement (and I don’t blame them for that).

This is compounded by the fact that some librarian positions have been re-classified from MLS positions to paraprofessional positions (yes, I know the debate about the term paraprofessional–spare me here, please!), further de-professionalizing the workforce. In addition to this, what might have been one full-time MLS position has been converted into two part-time positions. Also, as experienced librarians have moved up, those entry-level positions have often been unfilled or converted to something else entirely different.

No one should be sugar-coating the job market for librarians. It’s tough. I’ve been lucky and I know that. At the same time, I like what I do and I don’t feel “guilty” about having a job. Nor has being male held an advantage. I’ve been successful because I’m good at what I do.

For anyone thinking of going to library school: do your research, be aware of the employability issues, network with working librarians, investigate alternatives to “traditional” library work, and see whether you would be a good fit.

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37 thoughts on “The Librarian Shortage Myth & Blaming Library School

  1. I have been hearing versions of this “shortage” story since I graduated in 2000 as well. I work with new librarians on prepping their resumes, and I know the struggle to find jobs when a) you live in a market with a library school, b) have reasons that make you less able to relocate. In my experience, being able to relocate will make the biggest difference in landing a job. I am from Canada and relocated to the States in order to find a job that I thought would be challenging and pay enough to live on. The harder economic times also tend to stifle advancement in a system, so a lot more patience is required to get to the position that you want to have.
    On the other hand, the market is ripe for librarians to find or make work outside of traditional libraries, either in consulting or providing professional services. Even traditional libraries are tentatively exploring alternative service models. There is nothing stopping anyone from trying to do this on their own and sell the service to a library or anyone else who needs it.

    • Great advice on seeking non-traditional work! Thanks.

    • Definitely agree with you on the job market outside of traditional libraries – as I am in a position for a company that 3 years ago didn’t have a clue that library schools existed. Professional organizations and library schools do a fairly poor job in promoting/exposing students and colleagues to the potentials of life outside the traditional space – so you have to be on your toes and think outside the box. I think there are 2 important questions potential and current library students should ask themselves “What am I hoping to learn from this experience?” and “With the skills/tools that I have learned, where can these tools be utilized outside of the traditional sphere I know about?”

      • Great questions…and you’re right about library schools. I was often focused to much on “library science” as opposed to “information science” – there are some interesting career prospects out there, particularly if you have the tech skills.

  2. All well said. Also, there are even people who don’t try to work at all while in grad school, which was one thing I feel put me at an advantage. Learning as much as you can on your own volition is extremely helpful in getting ahead later. And yes, the economy IS definitely the real culprit for lack of job growth in the library market. To new grads: you’ll get there; to potentials, pay attention to the market if you are considering grad school. And please intern, work as a sub, or volunteer at the very least. This WILL pay off.

    • Definitely agree with your comments! Taking classes is just the minimum. You need the work experience & internships to help out you over the top because the competition is fierce.

      • “Also, there are even people who don’t try to work at all while in grad school”

        That’s a bit of an unfair statement, especially for older people returning to school. I was working a full time job which kept me in the office for more than 50 hours a week and going to school part time. I didn’t have time or the schedule to take on another job in a library to make up for my lack of library experience. I needed to be able to continue paying my bills while i was in school.

    • I think anyone who doesn’t at least volunteer and/or get an internship while in library school has no right to complain that they are having trouble find a professional job. But at least at my library school, there were no where near as many part-time library jobs for students as there were MLS students who wanted to work in these positions. The people who were able to get these jobs were generally the ones who already had a decent amount of library experience.

  3. This is motivating. Thank you Mr. Library Dude.

  4. This is a conundrum. NYC’s largest employers of librarians, the three public library systems, haven’t hired full-time entry level librarians since 2008. Meanwhile, Library graduate programs in the NYC area keep graduating students because if they didn’t get the tuition they would close. This happened in the 1970s and 80s when library schools around the nation closed. I know a lot of recent graduates who are under-employed or unemployed who would make excellent reference librarians, but the market cannot support the demand.

    • That’s a shame…as someone who’s not familiar with the NYC area, I’ve only begun to understand about the budget cuts, etc. facing NYC libraries. And yeah, there are probably too many library schools (Pratt, LIU, Queens Coll., St. John’s in the metro area, plus online options from elsewhere).

      • You should also consider the impact of the loss of school librarian positions on the over-all loss of library jobs. NYC has half the number of school librarians as it did in 1996. The suburbs are also cutting elementary librarians at an alarming rate. I work in Yonkers in Westchester County; we went from 25 librarians in 2010 to 8 today. There is a NY State Education regulation that requires a f/t librarian in secondary schools with over 700 students. My district is out of compliance as are many schools in the NY metropolitan area. The State Ed Dept. has done nothing to enforce these regulations.

  5. Good post. I’ve been lucky. I had a job waiting for me right out of my graduate program in the Dallas metroplex, and I was even able to get a second librarian job in a rural library branch in Washington state, which was where I was looking to settle last year. I found out that I had been competing with 80 other candidates after HR screened out those who didn’t meet the basic qualifications for my current job. So, yes, I feel very lucky.

  6. Given the fact that there is an abundancy of MLISs out there, I wonder whether there will be more MLISs willing to work as paraprofessionals. One day, that situation might not be viewed as a negative thing, right?

    • I think the biggest stumbling block is pay. People want to be compensated for the education…and I don’t blame them for that! :)

      • I agree! I’m a ‘paraprofessional’ and not at all embarrassed about the lack of the librarian title, especially because I work in a public library and most of our patrons don’t understand that I’m any different than the rest of the reference desk staff. However, I get paid almost exactly half of what my librarian colleagues get paid for doing work that is about 90% the same. No one is going to stay permanently in a job that leaves them only a few thousand dollars away from being food-stamp eligible.

  7. In addition to the shift to part-time and paraprofessional, the positions of retiring librarians (and other library staff) are just being eliminated. I would love to see a study that focuses on the number of available jobs, not the number of retiring librarians. My feeling is that the reduction in number of positions is not just the economy, it’s a decades-long attrition. I think some of it is attributable to the mechanization and centralization of library processes, and some is due to political shifts in how our taxes are levied and used. I wish our library leaders were more assertive about maintaining staffing levels, rather than making due with less each year. Once those positions are cut, it’s very hard to get them back.

  8. I like your post, Joe. I was bitter for a lot of years regarding the promotion of library jobs by the ALA and the library schools. I have since gotten over it. I knew after the first semester that there weren’t going to be any abundance of professional library jobs. By that time any library school worth its salt would have honed any future librarians BS detector. If you didn’t figure out the conflict of interest of the ALA and their library school cohorts, you weren’t paying attention. The ALA takes it upon itself to promote librarianship and their associated library schools. This interest came in direct conflict of the interest of students that wanted to get employment in libraries after spending a great deal of money getting a graduate degree in library science. I will be kind and call it a deception of the Harry G. Frankfurt definition. Then came the hoax, part two. This line of reasoning said that you can use your library degree to get a job in field outside of libraries. Laughable! Most degrees would be better for this than a specialized library degree. The library jobs are starting to open up but they are part-time, or don’t require a library degree. The entry level professional library jobs are not there. Getting an MLS is financial suicide. It kind of worked out for me but not really.

    • I agree…I’ve been lucky in terms of finding “library” work, but if I ever wanted to transition out, I don’t think my master’s in “library science” seems very marketable–imho.

  9. The third-to-the-last paragraph, as well as Emily’s comment, is (are?) spot-on. Evidently ALA and the “leaders” weren’t talking to each other when the available jobs were cut, re-classified, etc. etc. etc. That is the real story.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. You’re right…jobs frozen, unfilled, re-classified, etc… in the meantime, people are looking for that 1st entry-level job and not finding many options.

  10. Pingback: library risk, library reward | levelUp librarian

  11. I went to library school late in life, after both of our children were out of high school and living elsewhere. Graduated in 2005. It took me over a year to find my first librarian position (after 8 years full-time as a paraprofessional in a wonderful academic library at a huge public university). I was advised to move to a different geography, so I left the east coast where I had lived all my life and went to the Kansas to another large academic library, where I was told that it was difficult to attract people from outside the heartland. I noticed at the first faculty orientation that there were about three from outside the U.S., me, and and the rest (15 maybe?) just from Kansas or border states.

    In my dreams growing up, I must admit I never dreamed about moving to Kansas. Boy am I glad I did! The encouragement for professional development, the many opportunities that came my way (and I grabbed them!), and my colleagues I still communicate with and see at conferences. All adding to my value as a librarian, I am now back on the east coast in a smaller academic library doing exactly what I love to do – just as I did in Kansas.

    Had I stayed with my earlier accounting studies I most likely would be making more money. But I spend my day doing what I love, and job security in accounting and most any field right now is not secure. Hiring freezes are everywhere, and many people over 55, in all fields. are not retiring because they lost so much of their retirement funds in 2008. True, many people think I shelve books at the end of the day and read bibliographies all day long. But when I help a student find just the right information, and he looks me in the eyes and exclaims, “Wow. You rock!”, my tuition debt becomes all the more worth it.

    Don’t give up if you love librarianship and working with information in all formats discovered via many interfaces. Change your geography. Find your niche. Excel in your niche. Continue your library professional development, even if you are working a job totally outside your field. All of these things do not guarantee you a job – nothing does. But at least you will spend your time doing something you enjoy and eventually you may land just that job so you can get paid for it!

  12. Hmm. Yes, the “shortage of MLIS librarians” has been oversold for past 2 decades…at least in big North American cities. Don’t know about rural positions. I strongly urge MLIS graduates to be mobile across North America. And hey, would you consider the world of construction engineering document management at a construction site? How about up in the oil tar sands area in northern Alberta?

    A personal experience on-information management aspects, more on the construction site culture: http://cyclewriteblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/drama-at-construction-sites-things-i-never-knew/

    It may not be your personal ethical choice, however you would learn an enormous amount working in specific industries for a few years. It will serve you well to understand industry business practices and processes if you do move across to..ie regulatory /public sector organization.

  13. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Many of my fellow just recently graduated students don’t have full time jobs (if they have jobs at all, they tend to be contract and short term). When I ask what they are doing, they are severely limiting themselves geographically and are sending out far too few resumes. I sent out about 50 resumes to academic jobs. I also was super proactive in trying to make a stable web-presence, something that I know a lot of people haven’t done. The job market is crazy tight and to get a job as a librarian, you have to be confident, proactive, and willing to take risks, among other things.

    All that said, unfortunately, I see librarianship going the same way as the professor. Most community college courses are not taught by full time professors. They are taught by adjuncts – well educated folks who want to teach but are taken advantage of in terms of low pay, terrible hours, and no benefits. There is an academic second class in adjuncts and it seems to be spreading to other academic areas. sigh.

  14. Information specialists need to be adaptable. Darwinian I know, but true! An MLIS alone might not cut it.
    I work in a school library. Yes, I have teaching training, diploma in education and an MLIS. Love my job.
    School alone is not an indicator of getting a job. You need to be versatile and able to do more than library science.

  15. After reading this blog (and others), I think I am seriously reconsidering an MLS. I live in NYC. Sounds dismal.

    • You took the words right out of my mouth. I’ve been thinking hard about how I’d be able to apply my MLS knowledge to careers outside of the typical setting, but the more I think of, the less any of this makes sense. I’d enjoy doing what I do (IF I found a job), but would I be able to pay back the student loan that comes with it, much less live of off whatever positions I do find????

      • I was supposed to start an MLS program (in NYC) in September, but I think I am not going to go ahead with it. Can’t take on that much debt for little prospect of a job.

    • Don’t do it. There is a glut of Librarians in NYC and surrounding areas. The public libraries aren’t hiring. The schools are abolishing library positions. One recent grad, who landed a job in an academic library, said she was one of two people in her class who landed a job. I also know a law librarian whose business dried up- she went back to school to teach ESL. When I graduated library school in ’98 there were plenty of jobs- but not anymore. I don’t see the positions coming back.

  16. Jim, sigh….. I believe you could be right about the positions not coming back. Even though I am fortunate to have the job I desire – reference/instruction in an academic library, I see every day on the Internet and sometimes in the traditional news outlets some of the poorest reporting ever of unsubstantiated information. No critical thinking at all. Information literacy or fluency or whatever you want to call it no longer seems that important. Backing up talking points with facts doesn’t seem required. No matter if one is liberal or conservative or hanging from the ceiling. This is a job for librarians, but only if they are allowed to show their stuff! So maybe, eventually, others will see the damage being done in the world of information and an about-face on hiring professional librarians will begin. There is always hope.

  17. I realize this article is more than a year old, but your comments about “baseless comments about male librarians” are, well, baseless. Clearly you are not a social scientist. “The glass escalator” is the commonly-used phrase to describe the advantages in their careers men face in fields that are predominated by women. For just one academic article on this phenomenon, see Christine Williams’s “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in ‘Female’ Professions” from the journal Social Problems in 1992.

    I’m sure you’re very good at your job and have worked hard to get where you are. No one is challenging that. But you might want to do a bit of research yourself before dismissing such allegations out-of-hand as “baseless.” There is evidence in social science that backs this stuff up, and it’s all too easy not to see the advantages that you yourself have been afforded.

  18. What I want to know is, why are my library colleagues more interested in my ovaries than in my outside projects, my thoughts, and my career goals? I am nearing 50 years old, earned my MLIS at 45, and expected to have landed at least an entry level librarian position by now. No dice – I am still a paraprofessional, and three people – incidentally, all of them women, Heather – have asked me if I am pregnant! One young woman, much younger than me, asked if I was an “intern,” and another started talking baby-talk and treating me like a child; I don’t get it!

    Yes, I was an actress and am still a dancer (I’m thinking of teaching dance at my age to scrounge up more money), and yes, I apparently look youthful and certainly dress more nicely and am more presentable than most librarians – and I cannot get promoted. I do not understand why dumpy, frumpy, and dorky gets hired. I do voice-over work for the library, whereas many of the librarians have the “creaky voice” syndrome or other bad speaking habits. But here I am, earning less than I did as an undergraduate, toiling away after work as a consultant and a writer (I certainly am taken seriously outside of my library, including by best-selling authors), yet getting asked by coworkers, “Are you expecting?” WTH? I am skinny as a rail! I realize that I look younger than I am, but how is that a license to be unprofessional?

    Moreover, I observe that librarians hide behind the desk and realize that the frumpiness is a shield. When I was a reference substitute, a few full time librarians even confessed to me that they “looked busy” so that patrons would not bother them! I was the one who circled the floor, rarely sitting down, and I was the one answering all of the computer questions – I’m very tech savvy. I was very popular as a librarian sub because people wanted to talk to me, not to the frump at the desk; and frankly I think it’s disrespectful, dressing in jeans and a flannel shirt as some librarians do, especially when one serves patrons of color, for THEY have to dress to the nines to get any respect! I have finally gone to my HR director about all of the inappropriate comments and questions about my body. I am thinking of leaving the library and finding an IT job that pays better and only being a librarian/archivist consultant. I cannot have Social Security kicking in on a paraprofessional’s salary. I do not blame the ALA or my school; I blame librarians themselves for thinking themselves so tolerant and liberal while making the same old bigoted assumptions, and for having no imagination or ambition beyond sitting at a desk “looking busy.” I am published; they are not. They are cliquey, they gossip, yammer on their cell phones in common areas, back-stab each other and fight in common areas, and it is astonishing. They’ve got theirs, don’t they? These are all women, Heather – the few men in the workplace treat me like I actually have a brain in my skull. It just breaks my heart.

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