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.