May 23, 2018

The End of Lower Skill Employment in Research Libraries | BackTalk

Stanley Wilder

Stanley Wilder

The iconic image of library workers pushing book trucks is quickly slipping into obsolescence. According to figures from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), student employment in libraries dropped 23 percent between 2000 and 2010, while support staff declined 16 percent. If the 2008 recession played a role in these declines, it somehow failed to prevent the library professional category from rising nine percent in the same period. In fact, it is the evolving nature of library work that is driving these changes, not the recession. Lower skill library work is disappearing, and it will never come back.

The drop in student staffing is particularly telling. Students accounted for approximately 21 percent of a library’s staffing in 2010, and they traditionally perform a library’s lowest skill tasks. The drop in support staff is also dramatic, though less straightforward. The phrase support staff is a library statistics category for workers who lack a Master of Library Science or other relevant advanced degree. All lower skill workers are thus categorized as support staff, though many in the same category are higher skill workers, performing tasks that require considerable training or formal education.

On its own, the drop in support staffing is ambiguous, but it is less so when considered in terms of cost per FTE. In that same ten-year period, median support staff costs increased a whopping 54 percent. A similar jump affected the cost of library professionals, up 40 percent. Routine wage growth accounts for 27 percent of these increases, but clearly some other explanation is required for the remainder. In an era of chronic high unemployment, how did research libraries manage to increase salaries across the board and the level of employment of library professionals?

The Impact of Digital Scholarship

The first answer is that they could pay more. Process efficiencies have eliminated many labor-intensive workflows, and nowhere more dramatically than in the yearlong effort that was once required to manage print journals. Every issue prompted manual labor, beginning with mailroom sorting and continuing through record checkin, physical marking, and shelving. Several months later, the process repeated for binding preparation and shipping and repeated yet again as bound volumes returned to the shelf. Multiply these arduous processes by the 25,000 subscriptions that typical research libraries managed in 2000, and then consider that nearly all of that work was managed by lower skilled labor, and nearly all of it has now disappeared.

There is a second answer as to how libraries managed to raise skills and salaries: they had to. For every physical process that no longer exists, a new and complex digital process has sprung up in its place. These digital processes employ far fewer people but the expertise required is greater.

The simplest case in point is the sharp rise in the number of library positions devoted to IT functions. These individuals earn more money for less experience than those with traditional library expertise, owing to the broader market for skills in areas such as Unix, Java, PHP, and SQL. These new IT-oriented library staff members drive higher costs in both library professional and support staff categories.

For that matter, all of the library positions that survive the disappearance of physical piecework will require higher skills. The shift of scholarship to digital formats has obliged everyone to become conversant in systems, data management, and increasingly challenging technologies. None of these changes diminishes the centrality of traditional library and advanced disciplinary expertise. On the contrary, fluency in the new skill areas only adds to the complexity, and cost, of library workers.

The digital scholarship paradigm shift is far from having run its course. The scholarly monograph, having remained stubbornly print-based, appears finally poised to make its leap to digital formats. The impact of this leap on the nature of academic work is certain to be as compelling as it is unpredictable, but its impact on lower skill library workers has the feeling of grim inevitability. The disappearing book truck is a fitting metaphor: the scholarly ebook will put an end to lower skill print book–oriented jobs as surely as e-journals put an end to print journal jobs. There appears to be no bottom for the steep and sudden decline in lower skill employment in research libraries.

How Libraries & staff Can manage this transition

The proper response of research library administration is an assertive approach to process analysis but one couched in a context of supportive human resource programming. For example, a combination of skills inventory and training can enable staff to take on new responsibilities. The natural occurrence of vacancies may provide opportunities for organizational solutions.

And what of the lower skill library workers themselves? The disappearance of library work appropriate for undergraduates is troubling as yet another obstacle to affording college and to the extent to which on-campus employment contributes to retention. There may be no solution to this problem. There is much more hope, however, for full-time library staff performing lower skill work. Support staff positions are professionalizing at every level in the library, not just those in IT areas. The surest path to job security is to seek out opportunities to learn the new or higher order skills that research libraries desperately need.


Stanley Wilder is University Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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