People with college degrees have a lower unemployment rate than high school dropouts, unless that degree is in library science.
A number of kind readers have sent me stories on how badly library science majors fare in the workplace. First came an extensive spreadsheet from the Wall Street Journal based on U.S. Census Data, and then one of those clickbait articles from the Huffington Post based on the WSJ spreadsheet.
Even the ALA Joblist Twitter Feed helped spread the news, tweeting that a “New report shows library science with 4th worst unemployment among 173 majors – 15%.” Brilliant marketing!
You can sort the spreadsheet at WSJ and find out without clicking through the Huffington Post that Library Science has the fourth highest unemployment rate at 15% and the fifth worst median salary at $36,000.
The links from readers are accompanied by appropriate comments, such as “Why would anyone go into our profession again?” or “Another reason not to go to library school today.”
On the surface, that seems fair. After all, if the only college majors with worse unemployment are United States History, Miscellaneous Fine Arts, and Clinical Psychology, then you’re not doing that well. I didn’t even know people could major in just United States History, and I have no idea what a Miscellaneous Fine Arts degree would be, but they don’t sound like they’re producing widgets for the workplace like a good college degree should.
Before we get too despondent about the future of library school or our profession, we should stand back and realize that the WSJ survey isn’t talking about library school at all. Majoring in Library Science as an undergraduate qualifies a person for no professional librarian jobs whatsoever.
For that reason, it’s a bit of a travesty that any colleges even offer the degree. The MLS, for better or worse, is a professional degree that at least qualifies one to be a librarian. It’s not a substantial degree – or at least it doesn’t have to be – and many librarians have much more substantial undergraduate and graduate degrees to go along with it.
A library science major has the trappings of a professional degree, but it doesn’t qualify one for the profession of librarianship. In fact, I’m not sure what it qualifies anyone for, except maybe going on to library school, and even that’s questionable. That’s one reason holders of the degree are less employable than just about any other majors.
The College Board sort of warns people away from the degree. Their website states up front that “Most librarians study library science at the graduate level only. If becoming a professional librarian is your goal, you may want to major in another area of interest as an undergraduate.” Good advice.
It also asks telling questions: “Did You Know? Most bachelor’s degree programs prepare you to work as a school librarian. Other librarians need master’s degrees.”
I thought even school librarians needed degrees in education. Maybe some of those students double major in education and library science. I can’t imagine a more intellectually stultifying undergraduate experience.
It gets even better when the College Board suggests what a library science major prepares one for:
Are You Ready To…?
- Work as a volunteer or paid staff member in a library
- Volunteer as a coach, tutor, or camp counselor (if you plan to be a school librarian)
- Join Beta Phi Mu , the library science honor society
- Get involved in a student chapter of the American Library Association
If I had to choose any of those, “paid staff member” would be my top choice. I don’t necessarily think that every college major has to be vocational in nature, but a major that seems to prepare people to volunteer is maybe not worth the money.
Anyway, another reason those majors face higher unemployment and lower wages than others.
Yet another reason is that there aren’t that many colleges that offer the degree, and the ones that do aren’t exactly top tier. Again, according to the College Board, only 22 colleges offer the library science major, and only 19 of those are in the United States.
Of those 19, 3 are in Mississippi alone. Itawamba Community College in Fulton and Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville might provide a lot of opportunity for students in that impoverished state, but I doubt they’re producing many employable librarians.
There were a number of community colleges and branch universities, but the only school offering the degree that might be considered the flagship public university of the state is the University of Oklahoma.
It’s an unpleasant fact of life that degrees from higher ranked universities often lead to better employment opportunities. So if you went to Yale University in New Haven instead of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven (which offers the LIS major), or you went to the University of Pennsylvania instead of the Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, your job prospects will be improved.
On the college checklist, the College Board suggests you ask, “Does the program offer a master’s degree that’s accredited by the American Library Association?”
Of those colleges with majors in library science, the only ones that have ALA-accredited library schools are the University of Oklahoma, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Southern Connecticut State University (which for some reason has only “conditional” status).
According to the US News & World Report ranking of library schools, none of those programs are even in the top 20. Oklahoma is tied for #22, Clarion is tied for #40, and Southern Connecticut and Southern Mississippi are at the bottom of the list with “rank not published.” So none of the library science programs with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees are top-ranked programs.
Some of the top-tier, ALA-accredited library schools offer undergraduate degrees. For example, four of the top five ranked library schools – Chapel Hill, Syracuse, Washington, and Michigan – offer undergraduate degrees in information science or informatics or something similar.
That might sound like the same boondoggle as a library science major, but what hasn’t been pointed out as much is that the WSJ survey shows that “information science” majors have a 5.9% unemployment rate and a median salary of $71,000, considerably better than the library science rank.
That could be because graduating from Washington or Michigan with an information science degree makes one more employable than graduating from the Allen County (KS) Community College with a degree in library science. I’m just speculating here.
Library science majors may be less employable than high school dropouts, but instead of fretting that this signals the demise of library school or the profession of librarianship, it should instead be a call to abolish those undergraduate programs.
Library schools and librarianship have enough problems without being associated with these degrees.