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How Many Consultants Do We Need?

Over the past few years, I’ve known or heard about a number of librarians who got tired of their library jobs and wanted to quit working in libraries. That’s understandable. Librarianship isn’t for everyone, even if you can manage to get a decent job.

Of course, once you’re a librarian for a while, you’re not really fit to do much else, so what’s next? For a number of librarians, the next thing seems to involve becoming a library consultant.

As I heard of more and more people doing this, I had to wonder, just how many full time consultants can the profession of librarianship support?

In other words, can people who are only library consultants make a living? I have my doubts.

First, there’s the sheer number of library consultants.

The Library Consultants Directory Online is hardly exhaustive, but there are about 40 consultants listed in there.

If you search Google for “library consultant,” you get 87,400 results. Of course, Google has the same relationship to search results that some men have to parts of their anatomy whose size they want to exaggerate.

If you try to get to the end of those 87,400 results, it’s really just 396 results. But still, that’s a lot of results.

And if you go to LinkedIn and do a keyword for “library consultant,” you get a whopping 858 results.

According to the ALA, there are 12,479 public and academic libraries in the U.S. I’m assuming those hire the bulk of consultants.

With 858 consultants, that leaves about 15 libraries per consultant. If every library in the country hired consultants on an even basis, that would mean each consultant would have about 15 consulting jobs a year, which might in reality means only a few weeks work per year.

That obviously doesn’t happen, so the real market for consultants is considerably smaller, and a lot of those consultants are also employed as full time librarians, and they would presumably take work from the full time consultants.

My main question is whether leaving libraries to become a consultant is just a good way to go from a modest income to an almost nonexistent one, or are there people out there who really make a living from this?

Or do those people eventually return to the library fold in one way or another, as I’ve also seen?

Leaving a librarian job to become a consultant seems like going to library school so you can be assured of a decent job, but I’m really curious about this one.

It seems odd to say it , but if you need money, being a full time librarian is on average probably more lucrative than being a full time library consultant. Whoever would have thought someone might sell out to become a librarian.

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Comments

  1. I am an active consultant, and my guess is that just a few make a decent living from consulting. Most, like me, probably use consulting to supplement other sources of income. On the whole, it is not a great way to secure a steady income. There are good years and there are bad years, and you have to be willing to put up with a certain level of uncertainty.

  2. me says:

    My guess is that only the “rock stars” (in so much as you can be a rock star librarian) of the library world make a real living. Jamie LaRue comes to mind. A lot of people in the public library world know who he is and he’s done a lot of innovative things with eBooks & management. I can imagine that his transition from director to consultant has gone swimmingly. Most I would say don’t fair quite so well.

    Also, I imagine a lot of people who consult are retired and collecting a pension of some sort. But they would like to continue to be involved in and keep up with the library field.

  3. Kay says:

    I think me is right, many are probably semi-retired or in similar circumstances.

    I also think that the consulting opportunities are probably much wider than just public and academic libraries. I imagine community groups, businesses, or local government groups could all briefly contract a librarian for a training or project. “Consulting” is an easy term to capture a wide variety of activities.

  4. Underemployed Public Librarian says:

    “Librarianship isn’t for everyone, even if you can manage to get A job.” — fixed that for you.

  5. thelady says:

    Library directors tend to prefer consultants with no knowledge of how libraries work.

    • Joneser says:

      Or knowledge of how ONE library worked, 15 years ago when the consultant ran it. It’s the “change agent” meme which is now so last-decade.

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      This, and this.

    • Cut Both Ways says:

      Or perhaps, how libraries work in the imagination, where nobody’s ever wrong.

  6. Walter Lessun says:

    Here’s my theory of academic consultancy: When the higher ups get tired of hearing the moaning and groaning, they hire a consultant to keep everyone quiet for a year. When they get the consultant’s report they can file it or act on it. Case in point: at my college, we were always complaining about our pay scales. So, after a couple of years, we brought in a consultant. He did job audits, visited peer institutions, used federal standards and did all sorts of other consultant stuff. His report (a year later) suggested that a few of us were underpaid (including me), a few were overpaid and the rest were right where they ought to be. El Presidente and the Board decided that the overpaid would stay right where they were, the underpaid would get a raise and most of us would also stay right where they were. (Naturally, most appealed (not me, I was getting a $10k raise), but that’s another story.) End note: I retire in 270 days. I’m going canoeing. However, I am prepared to market myself as a consultant to small, rural community colleges at a rate they can’t afford OR as a freelance interim director to the highest bidder (someone to hold the operation together while search committees do their work).

  7. nerual says:

    I tried being a consultant for a year, began starving, and then got a job with a state library commission. Bureaucracy! Is it better or worse than library administration? Still researching the question…

  8. Nikki says:

    I think how lucrative consulting would be would depend on your particular skill set. If you have specific technical skills (such as converting from one ILS to another or configuring discovery systems, for example) you can probably make a living if you are willing and able to travel. If your skills are more vague you will have a harder time finding jobs and will have to be even more willing and able to travel — and most likely that travel will be coming out of your pocket although you will be able to deduct it on your taxes. A lot will depend on how wide your network is and how good you are at selling your services, too. If you think all you have to do is create a web page and clients will come to you, you’re not going to get many clients. An independent library consultant is, in the end, a small business owner, and needs the full complement of skills any small business owner needs to be successful.

  9. Andrew says:

    If you’re an information management consultant, and you’re limiting your scope of work to *only* libraries, then you’re overlooking a huge potential market of clients.

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