I’ve written a lot about the librarian shortage, sorry, I mean the librarian job shortage over the years. Librarians have it bad, I know. Between the ALA and library school propaganda, far too many people have been recruited into the field, which has led to lower salaries and un – or underemployment for lots of librarians. But it could be worse. If there’s a group of people more clueless about job prospects than librarians and library school professors, it’s English PhDs and literature professors.
According to a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this past December saw the worst Modern Language Association (MLA) convention ever in terms of available jobs.
"It is official, confirmed by the Modern Language Association itself: This will be the worst year for academic job seekers in language and literature since the MLA started keeping records more than three decades ago. I hope you’re not on the market this year. You may be good, but so are lots of other people. And the most important factor — luck — is beyond your control."
It sounds dire, but jobs in English and the rest of the humanities have been so scarce for so long only the clueless would have gotten that far and been surprised by the situation. Of course, sitting in a library for a few years writing a dissertation on an uninteresting and esoteric topic isn’t exactly the way to keep up with the world.
It’s not like people haven’t been warned. The same writer – an English professor himself – has often written on the subject. Just recently he had a great column entitled Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go. The title pretty much says it all. Here are the circumstances you have to meet before reasonably choosing humanities graduate school:
- You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
- You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
- You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
- You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
Those sound like good recommendations for a lot of library school students as well, though the situation is much better in librarianship. However, I’m bringing this up not to compare the situations, but to warn librarians.
An academic techie blogger at Inside Higher Education has a possible solution for all those unemployable PhDs: become an academic librarian or tech person!
"The tenure track job market is in the toilet. Have you considered pursuing an academic technology or library career instead?
Have you thought about applying to a Master’s of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program? How about a Master’s in Instructional Technology and Learning Services?
I’m sure you’ve thought about this option (have you?). Or maybe been given advice that learning technology and academic librarian jobs are wonderful routes to have an academic career."
This sounds like it would make a great infomercial.There weren’t many comments, but one commenter was all for the idea, thinking it would be better for everyone, even the students. "Who would you prefer helping you out with your Biology research paper? A Librarian who is a generalist? Or someone with an MS or PhD in the field of Biology that is a librarian?"
That’s a very good question, and it would be hard to say the generalist would be better than the PhD in Biology. Except there’s one problem with that logic. PhDs in Biology don’t become librarians, because they can get other jobs. It’s more likely the biology student would be getting help from someone with a PhD…in English. That way the person helping them wouldn’t know anything about researching job markets or making reasonable career decisions and wouldn’t know anything about biology. Pretty much a lose, lose scenario if you ask me.
There are plenty of librarian jobs that are best filled by people with PhDs, or master’s degrees in a subject at the very least. The problem is, English PhDs are a dime a dozen in librarianship, and they don’t bring the skills the libraries actually need. Too many English PhDs are academically provincial and technologically limited. Maybe library school would shape them up in the technology department, but not the rest.
Academic libraries need highly educated people in many fields, but those fields tend to require mastery of a lot of foreign languages and cultures. Libraries need specialists in Asian languages, not Asian-American postmodernist fiction.
They could also use people with technical skills. I don’t mean oneohonions who think Hulu is a technical skill, but serious techies who know things about programming languages and stuff like that. Again, not something that specialists in post-Marxist approaches to Cold War drama are likely to know much about.
I speak from experience. I’ve talked to many of these sad creatures over the years. The conversation starts something like this: "I have a PhD in English, and while I’d really prefer a teaching job I figured I could take a job as a librarian as a backup plan, at least until I can find a tenure-track teaching job. What do you think?" Being the soul of generosity when it comes to career planning, I tell them they should be sure to make their views very clear in the cover letter. And also to be sure to say that they love books.
I doubt libraries will be besieged by many of these PhDs, despite the exhortation by the IHE writer. These are people motivated by a love of their subject so strong they will forgo money, job security, and all the other trappings of bourgeois success to avoid selling their soul to the Man.
But you unemployed librarians should at least be warned. It’s just possible you’ll be joined in the job hunt by people even more clueless than librarians, but who also have more credentials and have satisfied one of the basic criteria librarians should meet: they’ve already failed at everything else in life.