March 17, 2018

Joining a Noble Profession | From the Bell Tower

One strong message that emanated from the Occupy Wall Street movement was the tremendous disparity in American household income. The one-percent slogan may actually have been an overestimate. According to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent.”

While academic librarians, salary-wise, may do slightly better than public or school librarians, they are typically among the 99 percent. (Unfortunately, this interesting chart does not include librarians). While working academic librarians are far from destitute, I know the salary spectrum pretty well, and many who’ve worked in this profession for 20 or more years still make less than a first-year law school graduate—and sometimes even less than a freshly graduated accounting major. We could complain about the inherent unfairness of the situation, but as realists we know that society places limited value on those who work in the field of education. Nonetheless, college graduates and second-career seekers want to be academic librarians.

Still enrolling
2011 marked the first year in quite some time that applications to law schools declined. Potential students now realize there’s no point in taking on enormous debt when the prospects for positions with high, lawyer-like salaries are growing fewer by the minute. Based on what I’ve been hearing and reading, it appears enrollment at library schools is healthy and relatively steady. Looking at LJ’s annual Salary and Placement Reports for 2010 and 2011, the total number of LIS graduates declined slightly in 2011, but there were still close to 5000 new librarians entering the job market.  How is this explained when, as in the field of law, jobs are scarce?

Logic would suggest that it’s risky to invest a considerable amount of money in pursuing a degree when, in addition to the uncertainty of securing a position, the entry-level salary falls below many professions. Making the decision to get a library degree is, I think, not entirely rational-analytical. There’s a strong emotional component. Whether it’s a love of books or a passion to serve the community that drives the decision, librarianship is still a respected, compassionate and dignified career—a noble profession. It’s about making a difference, helping people, being part of something bigger than oneself, and improving the quality of the community. We connect emotionally with our work.

A passion for the profession
I’ve heard many academic librarians share accounts of how they found their way to this field. One common thread is the desire to work directly with students. If we come to academic librarianship as educators or simply having a desire to teach, it provides an opportunity to connect with students where learning happens. For librarians with advanced degrees, it also offers the opportunity to share one’s subject expertise, and also apply one’s knowledge to collection building or research services.  Academic librarians also enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of  working with the faculty. I recall the look of absolute glee on a colleague’s face when she showed me her name in the acknowledgment section of a faculty member’s book. Priceless. There can be real rewards in collaborating with faculty, whether it’s acquiring hard-to-locate materials, helping develop a research assignment, or sharing a new technology tool.

But there’s more to it than just serving students and faculty. It’s also about being a part of an academic community. Some have such amazing experiences as college students that we want to hold on to that feeling as long as we can. What better way than by becoming a permanent member?

Those other benefits
Beyond the emotional reasons that a librarian bonds with the academy, there are some fairly rational ones. Some practical benefits unique to academic librarianship are of considerable financial value. The prospect of tenure, for example, is attractive to many librarians. It’s a challenge, a career accomplishment that creates new opportunities, and a path to gain equity with faculty. The prospect of a job for life, when “rightsizing” is the new normal, is rare to other sectors of the library profession, and has real value. Academic librarians may also take advantage of opportunities to advance their education through tuition reimbursement. Earning an additional master’s or a doctorate can help a librarian advance or create an opportunity for a new professional track. Just having a job with tuition benefits for dependents is incredibly attractive. I took advantage of it twice, and it makes a huge difference for both students and parents.

The total package
When you total up the reasons librarians choose the academic sector, it becomes clear why this it is still a destination for the aspiring librarian. Librarianship, in or out of academia, is a noble endeavor. It’s noble to serve the public, and help them to learn at the grassroots level. It’s noble to help children discover the joy of reading, and watch them build a foundation for future success. It’s noble to help scientists and technicians in the private sector achieve discoveries that improve the quality of life.

Academic librarianship is not better or nobler than any other sector, but it attracts a certain kind of person, for all of the reasons stated above. It’s an interesting mix of purely emotional and exceedingly rational factors that drive the decision. It’s about finding a highly rewarding job experience that fits with who you are. It’s a career path that will likely never make one part of the one percent, but if you’re looking for the total package, academic librarianship might be just what you need.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Thanks for the link to the fascinating NYT infographic on earnings. Librarians are actually in there, in the 3rd box up in the lower right corner.

    • Thanks for pointing that out Laura. How did I miss that? I was looking in the wrong area of the chart. Glad you found the chart of interest.

  2. I wish we had tuition benefits for dependents. But alas we don’t. That would be a huge incentive for job retention.

    • Thanks for sharing that with me Julie. I had thought the tuition benefit for dependents was standard in higher education – at least at the 4 yr institution level – but I can see it is not universal – although it should be. Even if the benefit is just for your own institution. I’m glad you brought it to my attention.