Think Librarians Are Hot? Not So Fast

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Article first published as Think Librarians Are Hot? Not So Fast on Technorati.

‘Librarian’ may not really deserve a place on the top 50 career choices of 2011. Our nation’s geek love is driving people to love books and love libraries. It even coerces people to don glasses, wear buns, and become librarians.

All of this has some supposedly economic basis. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics declares that librarians are a hot commodity: “job prospects are expected to be favorable”, with many opportunities due to retirement. Is this hype? Probably. Unemployment, part-time work, being forced to work shelving books, and a limited career path face the would-be professional librarian.

Think of library science as technology meets liberal arts, with a healthy dose of SQL, databases, and human-computer interaction coursework. The education can be challenging, as library science is really a soft computer science degree.

There are 57 Master’s level programs accredited by the American Library Association, churning out a total of 6,500 new Master’s of Library Science (MLIS) graduates per year. Libraries require this Master’s degree for almost every public and school library position. Even more astounding, academic libraries typically require two Master’s degrees, the MLIS and another Master’s in a subject specialty.

These 6,000 new librarians then run into the reality of finding positions actually within libraries. Part time work, work below the educational level, an informal apprenticeship program, and other issues face would-be librarians. Many positions prefer to hire candidates who have library experience, a Catch-22 that permeates the system. Often “non-professional” work is required before cinching down a part-time position, often without benefits. Note: the broad term “non-professional” means anything from archivist to book-shelving. Another key element is that the majority of job openings are going to be due to retirement, which means that applicants are waiting for senior staff to retire in a heavy recession.

By the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median earnings are about $52,000. At one Oregon public library, the Librarian II category topped out at $61,000 per year. In order to get to this position, librarians must have roughly 15-18 years of experience. This should serve to give an idea about typical wages, but on the up-side, most libraries are government-run – with an accompanying plush benefit package.

By Libraryjournal.com’s 2009 survey of the library field, only 70% of MLIS graduates reported full-time work post-graduation, and unemployment post-graduation was almost 6%. Near one out of five (18%) of MLIS graduates work part-time, and 13.5% decided to work in those infamous non-professional positions. What does this mean? It means that would-be librarians may do better to choose something more technical and/or develop a wide skill set to compete for scarce positions. Library graduates have nearly double the national average unemployment rate of Summer 2010 (approx. 15%) once underemployment is factored in .

Obviously, libraries have an up-side. A safe career path, decent working hours, and a chance to help others make the top of the list. Many libraries are organized labor employers, and the work offers variety and intellectual stimulation. Libraries typically welcome career changers with families and responsibilities, and the field is appealing as a trendy career choice. Many programs emphasize technical skills, which are a definite asset in any workplace. While the MLIS is a great education, librarianship itself may not warrant being on the top career moves of 2011: the actual work is scant, part-time work is common, and you may end up shelving books for five years.

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One Response to Think Librarians Are Hot? Not So Fast

  1. Amber Dawn says:

    Good point. Since I’ve started library school, I’ve had several people (younger friends, young cousin, etc.) ask me about going to library school and whether I think they should do it. I say, “Getting a job is not going to be easy. If you do it, do it because you’re crazy about the idea and you can’t see yourself doing anything else.”

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