There’s a serious inconsistency between library education and the job market. Actually, there are several inconsistencies, but today I’m pointing out just one. We seem to have developed a profession which is nationally competitive for the best jobs, but with an educational apparatus more appropriate to supply regional positions with unambitious locals.
Now, no matter how smart or talented you are, or where you went to school, if you’re not willing to move for a job, your chances of getting a good one are reduced significantly. And yet, the salaries even for the best jobs are hardly competitive with comparable private sector positions.
Despite there being so many fewer of them, a lot of library schools function like education schools do. Typically, education schools are there to give the education establishment imprimatur to whatever locals need it to teach in local schools. Rarely are they competitive. Their students and the students those students will teach are usually in the same region.
Library schools also function that way. Even at some of the bigger and better schools, most of the students are going to be in-state students hoping to find a job in the same state. Often enough, they’re hoping to find a job in the university library itself, which is about as geographically limiting as you can get.
And most public libraries resemble public schools in this way. Some public libraries are going to draw candidates from all over the country, especially in supposedly desirable places to live like New York or San Francisco. No one wants to move to some rural backwater they’ve never heard of, though, even if the library advertised nationally and actually paid well, which it wouldn’t. . Libraries in undesirable places often have to depend on local talent willing to work for low wages. Library education and salaries are designed with this model in mind.
But this isn’t how the best jobs or the ones with the most opportunity work. For those jobs, you have to strike when they’re available and be willing to move cross country if necessary. And while the best jobs do pay relatively well compared to others, they’re still not paying the kind of salaries the same people could probably make even as sales managers. Many good librarians take those jobs to avoid the stress of working 80 hours a week in constant fear of losing their financial or legal services job.
We’ve reached the point where even mediocre jobs are nationally competitive, while the salaries and educational structure to support these jobs are reminiscent of some previous era when bored local women who weren’t allowed to work in other places would take library jobs for a bit of pin money.
Add to that the apparent unwillingness to bargain for salaries when they can and the willingness of libraries to hire cheaper second-rate candidates if the preferred candidates won’t work for peanuts. I’ve seen this happen to various librarians who get excited about a particular job until the salary offer comes. It would save everyone a lot of time if all job ads specified maximum salaries for the position, so people would know whether they should even bother.
Sometimes the pay is so low positions stay unfilled for years, or are subject to rapid turnover of desperate librarians moving on quickly to better opportunities. Occasionally the administration at said library is absolutely clueless, and will complain that they can’t find good candidates, but usually if enough candidates turn down offers they start to figure things out.
And then there are the candidates who just don’t bargain. Is this the only profession where the professionals just take whatever is offered? I’ve talked to librarians who think they’ve achieved a real coup by getting a couple thousand extra in the bargaining process.
This is a problem I have no solution for. The most likely chance of change is that non-traditional candidates will start taking library jobs that are so necessary people are willing to pay more. Otherwise, a lot of libraries will continue to benefit from local librarians who consider this a calling rather than a profession, and will continue to work with low wages and bad conditions. I’m not sure where this leaves the rest of us, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a good place.