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Leaving the Profession

A Kind Reader emailed me asking my opinion on “the recent slew of librarians posting breakup posts–and generally leaving the profession. As seen on INALJ: http://inalj.com/?p=26270.”

On that site, I could find only one librarian actually leaving a breakup post. That one made the librarian social media rounds a few weeks ago. The reasons giving for leaving the profession are low pay and a “general frustration with library technology.”

Both of those seem like understandable reasons to me. There are plenty of other reasons to be annoyed by libraries, librarians, and librarianship, as I’ve faithfully documented over the years.

The other posts were more about the possibility of breaking up, but that doesn’t really matter. I know of numerous librarians over the last few years who have left libraries, sometimes for tech jobs elsewhere and sometimes for consulting or vendor jobs.

I’m assuming the vendor jobs pay better than their previous library jobs. Consulting is an iffy prospect, but the right person with the right skills can do alright, and it certainly gives you more freedom to control the kind of work you do.

The salary issue is tricky, though. The librarian breaking up complained of being paid 77% of what the Occupational Outlook Handbook says is the median pay for a web developer, a job that requires only a bachelor’s degree. That works out to be about $58,000 for a library job that requires a master’s degree.

That might sound like a lot of money to librarians living in small towns or rural areas, but in a lot of the most populous parts of the country that kind of pay isn’t going to get you much.

However, there’s another way to look at it. The people leaving libraries for other fields obviously have some skills related to those fields. A web developer is a web developer whether working in a library or for a web development firm.

The thing is, most librarians aren’t web developers, so a strict comparison isn’t necessarily relevant. A lot of them are reference librarians, for example. From what I can tell, there are lots of other fields that hire people as essentially reference librarians, but they don’t necessarily pay them more than libraries do.

That was the problem a few years ago when the ALA-APA gave talking points about raising library salaries and were using IT people as comparable positions. For a lot of public libraries, the most applicable comparison would probably be social worker, not web developer.

Is it worth replying to people who want to leave the profession? Should we be trying to coax them back in, or to stay in? Probably not.

For one, frustrated people are just going to remain frustrated. For public libraries especially, the low pay and tech problems aren’t going to go away. If someone can get out for greener pastures, good for them. They should be congratulated on their good fortune.

But, you might say, aren’t we losing a lot of talent? Eh, probably, but there’s more where that came from. Working for low pay is generally fine with young people, and there seem to be an overabundance of young idealists willing to give librarianship a shot.

If they all leave in ten years, they’ll be replaced by other young idealists, plus they’ll have ten years’ experience they can take elsewhere. That’s a win-win, at least for the libraries.

But what, you might ask, if the people leaving love libraries? Or even if they really love libraries?

That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening, though. People can really love the idea of libraries, the positive social function, even using libraries, but that’s a lot different than working in one.

However, if they really, really love libraries, they have the option of staying and finding a different library job. There are other library jobs out there, and people with good skills and lots of experience have a much better shot of getting those jobs.

If people want to leave the profession, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. The fact, unfortunate or not, is that there’s a long line of people waiting to replace them.

In general, there are just a lot more people trying to get library jobs than get out of them. If there really were a librarian shortage, then it might matter in the big scheme of things, but there’s not.

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Comments

  1. Andy says:

    It’s complicated by the fact that if you get tired of waiting for something full-time after the MLS and take a non-library job, it makes it that much harder to re-enter the profession later on. MLS “union card” or not, for a lot of library managers your post-MLS experience counts for nothing if it wasn’t in a library. Once you’re out, plan on staying out.

  2. bflolibrarian says:

    “There are other library jobs out there, and people with good skills and lots of experience have a much better shot of getting those jobs.”

    This does not apply to all parts of the country; good jobs of ANY kind are still few and far between in many places. Where do you get this rosy data about librarian jobs? And from my experience, good skills and experience do not always play a role as many employers are looking for the cheapest hires possible. Maybe a little insulated in academia, huh?

    • Ella says:

      The AL’s quote doesn’t say anything about the plentifulness of jobs generally, just that there are jobs out there, even if they are few and far between.

      In my experience, my boss that hired me was looking for good experience. Or at least, I assume she was, as she hired me (with 7 years experience in libraries and 10 years of experience in retail) for an entry-level shelving job at $1/hr above the entry level wage, when she could’ve just picked someone who seemed competent and literate and saved herself some money. (Being at the bottom of the totem pole gives me a pretty unique perspective on being overqualified and yet being offered a job anyway.)

  3. Andy says:

    @bflolibrarian “in many places” is right… you really have to be geographically mobile to advance and to increase your pay unless you work for a very large library organization. God forbid you are part of a 2-income household. or otherwise geographically constrained.

  4. Sarah says:

    It’s not just about being paid less than you can make elsewhere. It’s also about the culture that exists between administration and librarians. It’s about administrators not understanding what librarians do and not listening to us when we try to tell them. Sure, the librarian thinks it’s important to staff the library with a librarian whenever it’s open, but remodeling and updating all the computer hardware every other year looks flashier than having someone competent to help students with research. Getting new students to enroll is apparently much more important than making sure students are learning. Nevermind about the whole retention thing. I’m sure students will stay because of the upgraded cafe even though they have to retake remedial composition four times.

    • Kaylin says:

      That’s the case in almost every workplace you could find. Administrators always run things based on the big picture and the bottom line, and employees always think the could do it better because they see how things run on a daily basis. Nothing specific to libraries there.

    • Penny says:

      I’m an administrator in an academic library. I hear this argument often from library employees about the way funds are disbursed. I work for a public university, so the funding we have is often restricted and can’t be used the way in which we would like. We can’t just transfer money to pay employees more money (I live in an area where there are now restrictions on salary increases) but we can use money in a different pot to upgrade technology or buy furniture. Computer equipment is often leased, not bought (it is very often cheaper to lease than buy) so upgrading is part of the lease-we don’t have a choice.

    • Sarah says:

      When I got into higher education, I thought it was about making evidence based decisions to maximize student learning. Just a few days ago I heard administrators discussing how much golf time they could bill to the college while in a meeting about how to continue library services after having laid off 2/5 of the librarians. I’m tired of explaining and justifying what a librarian is to people who should already know and do not care.

    • Sarah says:

      I have never seen a library administrator dismiss the value of librarians. It has been college administrators without library degrees who have deemed it not worth their time to discover what a librarian does or attend meetings in which the existence of the library is at stake. I suppose if you think a librarian checks books in and out you do not realize that it is a problem to replace all the librarians with work study students or with no one. How does someone manage to acheive an advanced degree without learning to seek expert information instead of making uninformed assumptions?

  5. Kate says:

    I’m one of the “possibility of breaking up” posts cited by INALJ, but mine takes a different perspective. Instead of starting in a library and moving to the non-library world, I did the opposite – I work for a vendor (while I don’t state it outright, a little bit of research will reveal where I work and what I do), but I am looking to move into libraries because of frustrations related to my current job. But, there is still a bias against those of us who take this alternate route – it reminds me of what my mom (a retired teacher) often told me about “Alternate Route” teachers (those that did not get a formal teaching degree but move into the career anyway) – they get laughed out of the classroom.

    I fear that this bias will force me to break up with libraries before I can even get in the door, and therein lies my cross feelings – feelings of exclusion from our professional associations and colleagues, when we are using our librarian skills in new ways.

    • Jean-Paul says:

      I would say it depends upon what kind of library you are interested in working. I am a law librarian and there are plenty of people with JD’s that don’t like working as lawyers and then become librarians. It’s so “normal” that any bias would just be ridiculous.

    • c says:

      Seems to me that you could actually be an asset to quite a few libraries. You have much different skills and experiences then the run of the mill librarian. I can think of quite a few libraries in my area who would love to hire someone like you, but probably don’t have the budget.

    • Kate says:

      Jean-Paul – what you describe re: the legal profession is correct (before libraries, I worked in mid-size law firms in New Jersey). We had many a JD that got burnt out from law firm life (and we weren’t even one of those Biglaw firms either, but we worked our associates hard) that became in-house counsel, public practice…and one did leave to become a Lexis rep. :)

      You’re right though, it does depend on the kind of library you want to work in. Maybe I’m wrong (and please, someone correct me), but it does seem that the largest biases come from the academic sector.

  6. Naomi House says:

    I loved this post and thanks for your feedback on this topic! Definitely will share with all my readers too. Especially agree with the conclusion:

    “If people want to leave the profession, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. The fact, unfortunate or not, is that there’s a long line of people waiting to replace them.

    In general, there are just a lot more people trying to get library jobs than get out of them. If there really were a librarian shortage, then it might matter in the big scheme of things, but there’s not.:”

  7. Alex Kyrios says:

    Well, it’s not exactly waves of _retiring_ librarians, but it’ll do.

  8. Mark says:

    I found myself wondering two things:

    Did a lot of these people go into library school around the last time someone was predicting a shortage of librarians?

    How many of these people are moving into jobs that didn’t exist or weren’t well known at the time they decided to become librarians?

    This may be a healthy movement of people who really would be better off doing something else, no matter how good they are at what they’ve been doing.

  9. Dorothy says:

    This is grossly unfair to the library leavers. I’ve been trying to get a professional position in a library for the better part of a decade, while I worked in a non-traditional position coordinating a variety of projects (including the management of a digital library). What else was I supposed to do while waiting for a panacea from HR? In library school I did everything recommended – worked in a library, had an assistantship, made sure I was up to speed with my technology skills, yet when I applied to library positions after graduating the rejection letters I received uniformly stated that I heard I didn’t have enough experience. So I worked on obtaining experience the only way I could, and the result is that I’ll be shut out of libraries forever? Because I wanted to make some kind of effort to advance so that I would have some developed skills a library might use, instead of twiddling my thumbs and working 3 jobs until someone deigned to notice me in the resume pool? Yes, life is unfair, and yes, there is a lack of jobs everywhere, but I would think libraries of all places would recognize the benefit they can derive from individuals with a variety of experiences and the ability to survive in more than one job field, rather than only circularly hiring individuals who had the right network and the great good fortune to land a position out of the gate.

    The author’s blasé attitude about loosing talent is difficult to stomach – you wouldn’t hear that in other industries. Can you imagine engineers or computer scientists or medical professionals saying something like that in a professional publication?

    I will most likely be halting my library job hunt shortly to switch career fields entirely, and it is in part due to the very mixed messages I receive from libraries and librarians; at every professional event I attend I am encouraged and complimented, only to have the phone continue not to ring. Reading an article like this only clarifies that my fears were correct; sadly, libraries really just aren’t that into me.

    • c says:

      I am so sorry you have had such difficulties finding a position in a library. It is a shame. However, the comment I would like to address is that engineers, medicals professionals… would not say something like that. My husband is an engineer, and they do talk like that to an extent. However what we need to remember about that is that there are many librarians looking for positions, where as there are not as many engineers looking for positions. It is a different field, and is rather like comparing apples to oranges.

      I wish you luck in finding a position!

  10. James Castle says:

    When I entered the library profession It was my goal to make a difference in the lives of people. But the gender politics, poor salaries, and terrible management, combined with our library associations inability to work the corridors of Washington for the benefit libraries, librarians and our stakeholders, clearly facilitated my decision to leave this profession. Librarians have suffered as a result of our inability to convince our elected officials that what librarians do matter and that our work has the potential for enormous economic impact and benefit to society. I have often suggested that our professional organizations should commission econometric studies to determine the monetary impact our profession creates for our stakeholders: No one at ALA, SLA or MLA took this seriously. Until the members of our profession and our professional associations take this challenge seriously, our profession will continue to decline in importance

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