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Bad Jobs are Bad for Us All

A comment from last week has stuck with me:

In your previous column you write, “There are far too many people who seem to think that working their way through an easy degree should somehow guarantee them a job as a librarian,” but now you think this job is not good enough for a degree holder? On-call librarianship is a reality and not a new one–and so is the proffered salary. You slam anyone who expects a good job, and you slam anyone who would settle for this job!

Is that what I was really doing? I don’t think so. I was “slamming” people who expect a good job without doing much to deserve that job, and I was “slamming” libraries that wanted credentialed and experienced librarians for exploitative work with no benefits. This leads to a deprofessionalization and devaluing of librarians. How?

It starts with the library schools, which have been over-recruiting students for a decade or more based upon the canard that mass retirements will lead to mass job openings. This falsehood has been promulgated by the ALA for a long time, and the report I analyzed last post is eerily similar to the 1989 “Prospect for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences” by William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, sometimes referred to as the Bowen Report. It predicted  “a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences” and was used to justify years of over-recruitment of PhD students in the humanities and social sciences.

The Bowen Report was flawed research, but it played a significant role in the creation of the disastrous academic job market in many fields, and the adjunctification – and thus deprofessionalization – of so much of academia. We’ve seen the same thing in libraries. The part-timer, the on-call librarian, the MLS-holder in paraprofessional positions: these are all comparable to adjuncts.

Then there’s the effect of supply and demand, a very basic economic concept the ALA has never grasped. If there’s a librarian shortage, then pay rises and working conditions improve to attract candidates. Obviously there’s no librarian shortage. If there is an oversupply of librarians, then pay will decrease or stagnate or rise slowly (depending on the level of supply) and working conditions will stagnate or deteriorate.

That is what we’re seeing, and applicant pools, on-call substitute jobs, and similar things are the result of that oversupply. It also causes the decreasing power and control over their work that some librarians have been experiencing. If there are too many librarians, then they can be made to do just about anything, because they can always be fired and some other sucker brought in.

And then there are the individual choices of thousands of librarians and potential librarians. Instead of doing something else with their degrees or avoiding the field altogether, many librarians and librarians manque take jobs that are less than professional work. Often enough, they complain about it, just like numerous adjuncts in academia bitch and moan about their situation. How should we respond to the complaints?

One possible response is to blame “the system.” There’s a growing literature in academia laying the blame for adjunctfication on the system. There should be jobs for all those PhDs! In library land, this sort of analysis has mostly been confined to blogs, and has been a central feature of this blog for years. And there is a great deal of  truth it this, in that a system of library schools with low standards that need students and a professional association with no standards that needs dues has inadvertently conspired to recruit significantly more librarians than needed.

However, it seems fair to lay some blame at the feet of all the people making bad decisions. In my time, I’ve known dozens of adjuncts who whine about their job prospects. Sometimes I say, “but the job market has been awful for decades, and you knew that by your first year in grad school. Why did you continue?” I’ve never gotten a good response to that one, though I’ve gotten a lot of dirty looks. No one likes to own up to bad life choices. Everyone thinks they’re great or will be one of the lucky ones, despite the statistics heavily swayed against them.

This is a harder criticism to make of library school students, because they’re often in school for such relatively short times. But if professional librarians are doing so much unprofessional and even exploitative work, there might be a time they should just admit librarianship isn’t working for them and try to find something else. This might seem like it’s only a personal decision, but their decisions affect us all.

Why? Because the more subprofessional or part-time or exploitative jobs filled by professional librarians, the less value library degrees and librarians will have. The more librarians out there desperate enough to take just about any work as long as it’s in a library, the less secure all of us are.

To solve the problem of oversupply and deprofessionalization, two things need to happen.

First, library schools have to tighten their standards, both for admission and completion. This is especially true of some of those enormous online cash cows. As long as anyone with the money can find a program somewhere that will accept them, and as long as dim mediocrities can make their way through library school, and as long as library schools are more interested in making money than training great librarians, we’ll continue to have this oversupply.

Second, librarians need to get some self-respect and stop accepting bad jobs with shoddy working conditions. Those jobs should go unfilled, and the librarians who would normally be desperate enough to take them should just go do something else with their degrees.

And these changes need to happen in this order as well. The librarians most likely to be in the worst jobs are the ones that are the least competitive, that should have been weeded out during library school. When there are fewer dim mediocrities, there will be fewer people who’ll need to take these jobs, and libraries will have to compete for the fewer but better librarians around.

However, this is never going to happen. Library schools will continue to expand their programs, especially their online programs, and the ALA will continue their recruitment efforts based on bad interpretations of their own statistics.  And there will always be suckers making poor life choices, so I suspect this problem has a solution that will never be tried.

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Comments

  1. Montserrat says:

    Perhaps another, or maybe additional, solution:

    Capsize the ALA. Starve it until it dies, or until it is willing to raise the accreditation standards for library schools to a level where the pool of librarians shrinks to an acceptable amount.

  2. AL – Your suggestions seem like a way to adapt to the declining need for professional library services and the withering of our public libraries, though neither help the profession or the people who use its services.

    As an alternative, I’d suggest an approach successful companies use: they create a market for their products or services. For example, my first (and best) job was for an equipment manufacturer. The firm makes scientific equipment that break liquids down to their chemical elements. To drive demand for its product, the company had teams of chemists that educated users in the robust use of its projects and worked closely with them to identify new applications. These interactions were valued by the customer and also informed new product development. It was a continuous upward spiral.

    Public libraries seem to have responded to the declining need for their traditional services by “giving the public what it wants” in the form of popular DVDs and other forms of light entertainment, or touting the fact that they have wifi and public computers. These are low-end services and limit the need for highly educated staff. It’s the downward spiral you (and many other library bloggers) often write about. I believe it will result in public libraries disappearing in all but our most affluent communities.

    The antidote is to raise the bar. I write frequently about high-end services I believe the profession is uniquely suited to deliver and the public would value and support. Interested readers can check out http://www.radicalpatron.com/category/participatory-librarianship/.

  3. Amen, definitely an excellent post on something that needs to be said, but the powers that be would never have the guts to say it.

  4. Lindsey says:

    AL, you often talk about tightening standards for entry into library school. Do you have any specifics? What do you think the standards should be for getting into library school? I felt that my school was pretty competitive, and I think they only accept about half the applicants. I’m also generally very impressed by my fellow students and haven’t seen the “dim mediocrities” that you speak of. Perhaps I’m just lucky. Or maybe we’re all dim and just don’t realize it. Curious what your thoughts are.

  5. ChickenLittle says:

    Great post AL! I would also add that many library school graduates also do not want to go where library jobs actually are. It’s my understanding from different conferences I’ve attended, that there are pockets in North America where there is indeed a librarian shortage, notably the Canadian prairies and certain parts of the US (maybe any Canadian friends reading this blog can verify this). If you’re not willing to move, well you better get used to staying under and unemployed for life!

  6. Bruce Campbell says:

    Right on AL & Montserrat.

    One of my colleagues was admitted to a library school in Florida and they didn’t even ask for her college transcripts. There were no requirements. Just fill out an application.

    Lame. I went to Drexel and you had to take the GRE if your undergrad GPA wasn’t high enough.

  7. JD says:

    So I should quit my paraprofessional job because I have an MLS and it’s below me?

    Tell that to my student loans. Enjoy your well-paid high horse. Some of us have bills to pay.

  8. KidLib says:

    Joining the hallelujah chorus, AL. In an earlier column, you talked about that video that the librarians did to “I Will Survive,” and this is more of the same–”If I don’t do it this way, they’ll be mad! I don’t have a choice!” I’m one of the lucky ones who got a job right out of library school, and I’ve been employed (if not at a salary commensurate with living expenses of the city in question, once you work in the student loans) steadily ever since… but when I see full time jobs vacated by retirees being filled with temps or even volunteers (hey, it’s just library work, it’s not like it rates being PAID), I know it’s not good for anyone.

    The public library is something I believe in and am passionate about, and I don’t care to work anywhere else, but looking at the cost of the degree vs. the remuneration, I have to admit–it’s a choice that led to bad financial consequences.

  9. Dina says:

    I couldn’t agree more!! I am currently enrolled in Library School and BORED out of my mind. I am one of the few who work in a library and have library experience. What scares the HELL out of me is that in 2 years when I graduate, I won’t be able to find a good job. I went to a fantastic college, have another master’s degree, and plenty of library experience (I’m working full time in circulation while in school).

    And what’s worse, is my classmates have the audacity to call themselves “librarians” when really, we are not. We WORK in libraries. Until we go through professional school we are NOT librarians.

    Sitting in classes with underachievers, I couldn’t agree more.

  10. Eryn says:

    I’m the original commenter who sparked this column. I’m pleased AL chose to address my comment; after reading AL’s post, I stand by what I wrote.

    It’s not fair to denigrate the work “choices” of people without a lot of options. Not every librarian makes $30+ an hour: That’s an urban library wage, and not every library system is in an urban centre. Not every library offers nothing but full-time positions: I have reams of colleagues and former classmates who live on three part-time jobs or a series of contracts. As for non-professional tasks, it depends on how many staff members the library can hire; I’m the only staff member in a special library, which makes me director, librarian and library assistant.

    Librarians in rarified environments are too often the loudest voices in our field. They should be part of the dialogue, but just part, not all of it.

  11. Kim says:

    This year’s placement report is out and I note that ALA is now counting the previous year, 2009, instead of 2010. When I graduated, the year I graduated was counted though I never received the survey report. The different choices made by the three covered students are interesting and made me think about the choices made by the people I went to school with, most of whom found jobs in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

    I worked in libraries before and through school, both volunteering and in high level assistant positions. Those jobs don’t seem to count much in a market that wants at least two years of post graduation professional experience. My job ended after graduation and I was advised not to take another assistant position. Librarians told me told me that an assistant job often turned out to be the road to nowhere because years would go by of underemployment while those who had obtained professional jobs gained experience, moved forward. They would be the ones I’d be competing with in the future hyper competitive job market. So I took a job that had hour flexibility and volunteered doing high level work at a local academic library. On call work was out of the question; what if I had an interview and was called in?

    Librarians told me move, which turned out to be a good choice because I found a high level job that had been unfilled for many months. The library wanted more experience than I had, but no one apparently wanted to live there. It’s been a good move since I run the joint now and eventually will move on.

    It’s pretty rough for lots of people, not just in libraries. Poorly paid and abusive jobs are all over the place. Still, I advise people against going into the field now because they will have a terrible time trying to pay back those student loans on the wages paid by these terrible jobs.

  12. But... says:

    “That’s an urban library wage, and not every library system is in an urban centre. Not every library offers nothing but full-time positions: ”

    But that’s the AL’s point here–while people are accepting jobs on those terms, libraries will continue to expand the number of positions they fill that way. Every time they realize it’s easy to fill a job that’s defined as “Be free all the time for no real wages and no job security,” they’ll make more jobs that look like that, and fewer that people who don’t have a second income in the house can live on. Most of these jobs could be fine for a wife working off her school debt; they won’t support a single-income household. If they’re allowed to be re-defined as, essentially, hobby jobs, then the professional jobs will disappear for everyone.

  13. teetop says:

    >>I believe it will result in public libraries disappearing in all but our most affluent communities<<

    I disagree. People in affluent communities don't need rows of computers and can go to Starbucks for Wifi. If that's all the library is, they will be the first to leave.

  14. meg says:

    “It’s not fair to denigrate the work “choices” of people without a lot of options. Not every librarian makes $30+ an hour: That’s an urban library wage…”

    I work in a library in an urban center and don’t know a single librarian who makes $30 an hour. If anything we make the same or less than our counterparts in less expensive parts of the country and our cost of living is higher. It truly is my own stupid fault for accepting the low salary as the “cost” of being both a librarian and employed. The more my library system uses paraprofessionals and part-time help, the less the next round of hires will make.

  15. Sublue says:

    I am one of those MLS holders that are “devaluing” the profession by taking a paraprofessional job. I understand the validity of the statement. However, I’ve painted myself into a corner by having almost a resume full of library positions, and little else. I have bills to pay, so I took the job. I’m not sure that any other industry would take me, as specialized as I am. I am considering going back to school for a useful degree. Maybe something like business, or something in the health field. But yes, it is hard to let go of an investment of years devoted to the library field. Its also daunting to face the prospect of starting over again. I have a few questions that are not rhetorical. I’ve been on the look for a professional librarian job for almost a year. At what point should one throw the towel in? Should we keep trying until some theoretical date in the future? Or should we cut our losses now? Are there really any degrees out there that guarantee a job in this economy? The whole “go to a another field idiot” argument is easy to say, but actually a very wrenching and tricky thing. As is, I don’t know that any other field would have me.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I absolutely abhor that “mass retirements will lead to mass job openings” lie that I was told when I first started grad school.

    My question is: What “something else” am I supposed to do with my degree? Everything requires experience, and I just don’t have much of any. “Something else” would likely require another degree – and even then I’d be back in this same situation, with no experience.

    I’m to the point where I’m applying to graduate schools for another masters on the thought that said school will hire me as a student worker in the library, and I’ll get the much-coveted Experience. What else can I do?

  17. student says:

    It’s the economy, stupid!

    Cities, states, universities and private companies are cutting back, laying off, reducing hours, cutting benefits and doing without. When the economy improves, so will the employment outlook.

    Librarians are certainly not the only ones suffering. Talk to a construction worker, teacher, new law school grad and see what they have to say. Everyone is volunteering, interning, working multiple part time jobs and doing whatever they can to get by…it’s the Great Recession.

    Truth be told, we should probably all be getting science, engineering and medical degrees…but we continue to hold out hope that things will get better by the time we graduate.

  18. Kim says:

    Elizabeth, it’s a terrible economy across the board and though I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into the field right now… since you are already in school, I can tell you what the successful job finders in my class did to get experience. Multiple internships were common, along with building relationships and mentors by working with librarians within the community in a volunteer capacity. Some of my peers served on boards and committees, published even before graduation, and then were flexible regarding both the job type and location. A number of my classmates were already working, but not in libraries. They looked at the degree as a way to advance in their current jobs.

    I’ve kept in touch with a number of them: some are working in industries related to either to their professional lives before going for the degree while others work in special libraries, schools, corporations. Three work as Instructor librarians, and another works for a for profit college. One works at an army base, another at a non profit. There’s a web designer and one who managed to find a youth services position.

    In my experience, student library jobs don’t get you very far after you graduate because they are often viewed as “non professional,” even if you had a lot of responsibility. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to obtain a library job as a student, particularly if you can obtain one in a special library. It’s tough out there for everyone, no matter what field you’re in. Wishing you the best.

  19. I hold an MLS and just accepted a paraprofessional position at a local high school. But I’m 61 years old and coming out of a stressful corporate environment where I was a Technology Project Manager.

    I am thrilled to have a steady job with benefits and will be investigating how to activate my outdated provisional teaching certificate. At that point, I would be qualified to run the library and should have the experience to do so.

    The job market is tough, but I encourage those who are committed to their dreams to keep looking till they find a job they love. Good luck!

  20. Allison says:

    I agree with you AL, on many levels, but I just think the playing field is changing and we are slow to adapt. If libraries are moving online, we need to go with it. There will still be jobs, but a lot of librarians are scared of computers and technology and are not willing to learn something new. We need to change the profession together, for the people and for ourselves.

    The standards for library school are very low, and you should have to have some experience in a library before being accepted. How could someone understand a reference interview never having experienced one as the interviewer?
    Class sizes need to be restricted as well. I never expected to have 40+ students in my classes at the graduate level.

    But I will say, you should not blame those taking the paraprofessional jobs. They have families to feed and bills to pay. You do what you have to when times are tough and it could very well pay off in the end… even though it may not seem that way right now. Working at the bottom when you’re overqualified does pay off for some adjuncts when they are promoted and the same goes for library staff.

  21. Aim Higher says:

    I’m not sure the AL is pointing the finger at those who have chosen to take paraprofessional jobs…but more that those jobs used to be professional and now they’re not. Bills to pay, families to feed is more than understandable, and in the right circumstances, paraprofessional can lead to professional. This is true across the board.

    But people should also know that while they are doing what they can to get by, they can also strive for something better…no matter what limitations they perceive they have. Someone once talked about “the soft discrimination of low expectations,” but I forget who…and librarians (and library students) should be careful not to settle for less than they deserve.

  22. Danielle says:

    To those saying the criteria or standards to be accepted into “Library School” are very low, I do not know where you are applying. If anything, it is more competitive than ever. The Rutgers program is so exclusive.

  23. leavingtheoffice says:

    @ChickenLittle

    You are right about the remote areas with librarian shortages, but these regions certainly don’t have enough opportunities to sop up the excess supply of librarians. Besides, if you want to live 60-100 miles from the nearest city of 100,000 on the Canadian prairies and earn 2/3 of the average starting salary for a university librarian, knock yourself out! Good library jobs, like academic positions, are not hard to fill, even in places like the Dakotas or the Canadian Prairies.

  24. Stephanie says:

    To Danielle who claims that library programs are exclusive:
    Wow. Maybe I should have gone to Rutger’s. Applying to Drexel’s library school was like ordering a pizza online. It was unbelievably easy,

    and to Bruce Campbell:
    “I went to Drexel and you had to take the GRE if your undergrad GPA wasn’t high enough.”

    The GPA minimum of 3.2 does not at ALL make it a competitive admissions process and I find it sad that you think so.

  25. Jon says:

    While there are definitely some students in LIS programs who aren’t held to high enough standards, ultimately the job search process will weed those people out. What I think more and more applicants to LIS schools should know is that having the Master’s degree is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. There are many other ways to set yourself apart professionally — from presenting at conferences to getting published to making your own website to volunteering to interning to organizing student groups to…etc. — and the quality of some of these programs can be so iffy that employers are simply not impressed that you just got the degree. There are still jobs out there, but the ones who simply got the degree and did little else will end up on the margins, working at the kind of exploitative jobs the AL speaks of, in environments that are unprofessional and not moving forward technologically or intellectually. And that’s not what anyone (in his or her right mind) goes to graduate school for. So students need to be told that this profession really is a “sink or swim” one right now. It is competitive, but good, creative, decent-paying jobs are still out there, and smart, motivated students shouldn’t be dissuaded from joining our field. We need more of them, in fact.

  26. E. says:

    I have to agree with Stephanie. I went to a college with a <10% acceptance rate, so when Lindsey says that her school feels competitive and accepts about half the applicants, I'm not really buying it. Right now, a library school degree does very little to distinguish an applicant as qualified. When I see resumes, I want to see experience or special skills. I've been in the field a while, but when I was job-hunting, having my undergraduate school on my CV likely helped distinguish me in its own way. Yes, that's somewhat irrelevant and unfair, but how else are employers to decide, if the MLS doesn't mean much?

  27. student says:

    I saw a job posting this week for a supervisory position in a library in a medium-sized city in the northeast. They wanted four years of experience and, of course, an MLS. It paid $35,000 per year.

    I went back to copy the link but it’s already gone. They probably got 300 resumes the first week from desperate MLS holders.

    It begs the question of just who, exactly, is going to go to library school if it becomes more competitive? Top tier students from top tier schools? Why would they do that? I realize the point is that if only the cream of the crop became librarians, then they could demand more money. That’s true at a university, maybe…but what about at the local level, where pay is determined by city budgets?

  28. losingfaithinhumanity says:

    Looking at jobs that are posted in Canada, I see that most of them are at a Management level. Very few are entry-level or require minimal experience.

    I think it’s because, as jobs are vacated (by retirement or otherwise), those management or supervisory positions NEED to be filled, but libraries are leaving lower professional positions vacant. You can get managers to do a lot of grunt work under the guise of “that’s why they get paid the big bucks.” We have 3 part-time jobs unfilled at the moment. Many of our other p/t jobs have been filled on a contract basis – despite them having been permanent positions up until someone moved out of them. One full-time job was posted as a p/t job.

    What it means is that the existing staff absorb the duties, hours, etc. of those jobs. We’re being told that this is all for the next 2 years, while budgets are tight and until the economy bounces back.

    I think it’s going to be permanent. If they see that we can manage like this for 2 years, it’ll become status quo. Those jobs are never coming back. And then you have staff doing more with less time and fewer resources. I can already see burnout. So potentially strong and great librarians are becoming mediocre because they’re expected to do too much.

    And because of that situation, I honestly WISH we had those crappy jobs. I WISH we had casual staff we could call in. I’d feel badly for those librarians who had to take those jobs, but it would sure help as a system.

    Seems like things are just in dire straits no matter what kind of job or library you’re in.

    I feel like I would have loved (and been good at) this profession 20 years ago. Maybe even just 5 years ago. But I fear that I jumped onto a sinking ship when I joined this profession.

  29. Vibe says:

    Arrogant “professional” blowhards. I assumed only the librarians at the university where I worked were self-righteous snobs, but reading the comments here I see that’s not the case. I am one of those dim mediocrities trying to better my life situation by getting a job in a field I think I will enjoy. But the generalizations of library school students I am reading here make me regret my chosen profession today.

    If I have to take a different job when I graduate because there are no jobs in the field so be it. The engineer that’s working as a barista and the MBA that is working a retail job knows where I’m coming from. I am aware the job outlook sucks and librarians are working for crap wages generally. But your solution of increasing the “quality” and decreasing the quantity of the graduates leaving library school is just foolish. Soon having a masters will be the minimum qualification for making a livable wage. Trying to make “librarian” an elite title is funny. Unless you are in the medical professions – there is a surplus of workforce in nearly every field. Only the competitive will get the best jobs and the rest will have to settle. I don’t care what that does to the professionals who feel exploited. Join a union and quit blaming recent graduates. I highly doubt library school was any harder to get through when you all were were there and I certainly don’t think you had the determination to do classes online while working and raising a family and having “professionals” look down on you for your sub-professional employment positions.

  30. bridge to nowhere says:

    Don’t worry, losingfaith, the part-time jobs will come back when the older librarians in charge want them to. They’ve created the myth of a labor shortage so that they can justify creating “bridge jobs” for experienced librarians such as themselves who only want to semi-retire: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1580468&show=html

  31. Danielle says:

    Rutgers has a competitive program. Anyone who has applied or went there knows this. Further, if you think library school is so beneath you, then why did you even bother going through the effort of acquiring a degree? Seriously, pretentious much?

  32. Bruce Campbell says:

    To Stepanie:
    The GPA minimum of 3.2 does not at ALL make it a competitive admissions process and I find it sad that you think so.

    Did you read my post? I didn’t say it was competitive, but I said there were REQUIRMENTS. Whereas there are no REQUIREMENTS for other library schools.

    I find it sad that someone going to Drexel cannot read. The place has really gone downhill.

  33. Stephanie says:

    The bulk of the library school discussion is centered around “they should be competitive” and you, Bruce Campbell, chime in with “wow, well at least Drexel has requirements”. To me, it sounded like you were defending it.

    As for Drexel going downhill, your SHOUTING really doesn’t make Ye Olde Drexel look good either.

    Danielle, it sounds like you chose a good library school. I gritted my teeth through my terrible library school experience because I wanted to be a librarian, obviously. Getting a waste-of-time degree in order to do something I love? Boy does that sound pretentious! Give me a break.

  34. Danielle says:

    Stephanie, need a hug?

  35. Brandon says:

    I’m a recent graduate of the Rutgers program. Knowing some of my fellow graduates, the idea that it is somehow ‘exclusive’ boggles my mind.

  36. Bruce Campbell says:

    I didn’t think there were that many idiots at Drexel. There were a few older people who didn’t seem that computer literate.

    As I was in Lib-school I worked with some people who weren’t especially bright and they went to schools with laxer admission standards/grading than Drexel.

    So, consider yourself lucky. And you’re employer paid for it. Why are you complaining again?

  37. Freaked Out says:

    I just started library school and now I get around to reading all these blogs. I’m freaked out at my prospects when I graduate. That being said, I have met 3 young recently graduated librarians who all got jobs out of school. Jobs that I would love to have. One who got a job offer before he graduated. So I see these examples and then I read all these comments.
    What distinguishes someone from the rest exactly? I go to school with young people like me who are just getting into this profession and with people who already work in the field. I moved across the country to go to a program because I didn’t want to just get my degree online. Was it worth it?