February 18, 2018

Can We Block the Pipeline Out? | Peer to Peer Review

Dorothea SaloSome of the best new professionals I meet and teach are leaving academic libraries.

Another scholarly communication librarian in an academic library got in touch with me online last week about finding a different kind of job. I’m well-used to these messages from scholarly communication librarians and research data managers new to the profession; sometimes they’re my former students, sometimes they’re conference acquaintances or folk I converse with online. Like the other predeparture messages I’ve gotten, this one came from the kind of new professional every academic library claims to need: smart, tech-savvy, creative, passionate, hardworking, up-to-date, and consciously committed to staying that way. Like the other predeparture messages I’ve gotten, this one breathed disillusionment and burnout.

I’m worried.

I’m not as worried about the people who contact me as you might expect. By this time, I know a pool of academic library expatriates that while not large enough yet to expect statistically significant results from a research study is large enough and old enough to generate a sense of outcomes. After the inevitable period of uncertainty and second-guessing themselves, expatriates do just fine: they go to government or data centers or publishing or start-ups or research labs or ed tech, and they flourish there. As an LIS educator and sometime mentor to new professionals, I wish them well and rejoice in their success and contentment.

I’m worried for academic libraries, especially for their expansion into growth and change areas such as library-based publishing and research data management. I worry for Association of Research Libraries (ARL)–size libraries most—not least because they are the most prolific producers of the expats I know—but I don’t believe that changes in scholarly communication and more stringent expectations of research data management will pass wholly by libraries at teaching-focused institutions or small liberal arts colleges, so I worry for them as well. Hardly any of the expatriates I know stay in academic libraries; of those who do, none continue to work in scholarly communication or research data management. One of them, a memorably brilliant former student of mine, told me outright once, “I still want to do this work, but my library acts like it doesn’t want me to, and other libraries don’t look any different to me.” This librarian now works in a national research data repository.

As an LIS educator, I’m accustomed to blame over library hiring difficulties: whatever the flavor-of-the-day librarian is, it’s always my fault they aren’t showing up in applicant pools. I don’t care to contest that perception just now; I have a different question. What’s the use of me trying to fill the pipeline into academic librarianship with people ready to do these kinds of work if they’ll only spill right out the other side of the pipeline into nonlibrary careers? Or refuse to enter the library employment pipeline at all, as I am seeing an increasing percentage of my students decide to do? Can academic libraries do what they need to do without such people?

I have already published at great and painful length about the manifold ways academic libraries set up new projects and their often-new staff to fail, substantially informed by what the expats I know have communicated to me about their situations. I must guess from that article’s Twitter virality, combined with the lack of substantive comment on it from blogs or other longer form outlets, that no fewer new academic librarians find themselves in the same situations that spurred the expatriates I know to leave, but they do not dare discuss it openly, limiting themselves to pointing out writing that strikes a chord with them. I worry that these retweeters will form the next wave of émigrés sending me predeparture messages.

Can we humanely block the pipeline out of academic librarianship? As I look back at the messages I’ve gotten, the dominant theme I see is professional isolation. Their colleagues do not support them and do not make them and their work feel welcome or needed, often expressing open fear of or disdain for it. Sometimes these colleagues even consciously hinder their work, actively or passively. The new librarians’ reporting chains do not notice this steady drumbeat of discouragement and alienation and certainly do not intervene in it, adding to the new librarians’ sense that they have been abandoned and the challenges they face are too great for them to tackle alone. For all the worry I keep reading about regarding academic library infrastructure deficiencies and sustainability challenges, I don’t see these problems fueling the outward pipeline; new librarians are ready and willing to tackle them. It’s the workplace silence around them, the sense that no one wants them there, much less wants them to succeed, that drives them away.

What worries me most, given that silence, is that the expatriates I know may be merely the tip of a huge, ugly iceberg, and that no one save me—yet another academic library refugee—can talk about it out loud. We won’t solve a problem rooted in silence and alienation by reinforcing the silence! Let me suggest, then, that many of us in academic libraries make a start toward blocking the outward pipeline in our own workplaces. If there’s someone on staff doing something new all alone, please reach out. Learn what they’re trying to do, and keep an open mind about it. Ask how you can help. Costrategize about how you and they can together make progress on their goals. If you are able, be a safe person to talk to, someone who won’t gossip or tattle or leap to defensiveness. What you’ll hear will likely be challenging to listen to, but your companionship and acceptance could make the difference between a colleague with sufficient support to cope and yet another academic library exile.

Academic library deans, directors, associate university librarians, supervisors: please do not abandon new professionals in change areas to their own devices. From what expatriates tell me, your new professionals need your enthusiastic welcome, your political capital expended on their behalf, your help with planning and strategic direction, and your open workplace-internal support. They need these things all the more when their colleagues are unlikely to provide any of them. If you do not intervene consciously on their behalf, you risk losing them, not just for yourself but for all of academic librarianship.

I worry constantly about how to approach this conundrum with my students. The immediate spur for this column was a student-initiated discussion in one of my classes around some of the librarians whom students work for as paraprofessionals or practicum interns, librarians who sneer disdainfully at or recoil fearfully from the new, digitally focused skills and tools these students are learning about in library school. I can’t even manage to graduate these people before the existing workforce starts telling them that they and their novel skill sets are not welcome or wanted! Small wonder academic library applicant pools seem sparse. My students are more than workplace-savvy enough to know when they’re being rebuffed.

Is it fair to my students to continue pointing them toward new areas of academic librarianship where they may be left to scale Sisyphus’s mountain alone, suspecting as I do that their chances of alienation and burnout are high? Should I warn them, knowing that if I do I will scare some away from growth areas in the profession, knowing that if I don’t I will have betrayed them by hiding what I know both first- and secondhand about how academic libraries are liable to treat them? At present, I am erring on the side of openness about my own blemished professional history and offering as many useful suggestions as I can think of for coping with an unwelcoming professional environment. I wish I could feel certain that is the most useful and ethical approach. I do feel it incumbent upon me, no matter what, to put my students’ ultimate on-the-job welfare ahead of academic libraries’ cries for new kinds of professionals.

I want my students to do better than I did in the newer professional niches I tried and failed to inhabit worthily and now teach with all the fervor I have in me. Academic libraries need my students to do better than I did, for that matter. But I need academic libraries to help me out with this, by making a concerted effort to welcome and retain the graduates I send them and the other new professionals I mentor. If I’m to go on working toward a better pipeline into academic libraries, I need to be confident that I’m not just dumping my best graduates into a disillusion-stained pipeline out the other side.

Dorothea Salo About Dorothea Salo

Dorothea Salo is a Faculty Associate in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches digital curation, database design, XML and linked data, and organization of information.

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  1. Dorothea, I know you and many others have experienced working in academic libraries where innovative scholarly communication initiatives were squelched, or allowed to die on the vine (which is perhaps even more discouraging), because of lack of vision and leadership. But a brief plea for other academic library directors like me, who are very supportive of such projects, and do our level best to advocate, fight, support, and battle like mad for these projects – sometimes, lack of support from the library director isn’t what kills a project. It’s lack of money and staff straight from the top and even higher. Personally, right now, I am frazzled from 7 straight years of budget shortfalls and inadequate staffing. I’ve gotten strong support in some areas from administration – but my state is chronically underfunding higher ed, and libraries are paying the price. Lack of funds is making it near impossible to move forward to where the large library I run should be, and I am job-hunting myself, hoping to find a place that actually will support the library with more than words. We’ve done amazing things on what little we have just because I have terrific people, and we’re good at spinning straw into metaphorical gold – but being squeezed for every nickel takes its toll.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I fit your sample population perfectly – I’m an older librarian with a technological background and a specialization in data management (including a graduate certificate in digital information management, and a background in data management and analysis).

    I recently lost patience with the academic library system I have been working for both as an adjunct and full-time for almost 10 years and left librarianship entirely to pursue a data analytics position at a major research university. It’s better pay, more opportunity for advancement and I already feel more appreciated than I did in a decade of librarianship. Not to mention the satisfying feeling of a job well done, that directly impacts the university’s ability to function.

    You’ve identified a genuine problem. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution I can offer up since I took the easy (and lucrative) way out.

  3. Dorothea, this a great article and I’m glad you are writing about this issue. I have seen far too many of my friends leave the profession and never look back. A little background on myself: I graduated from lib school in 2013 and I knew from the day that I started that I was never cut out to be an academic librarian, and quite frankly, I never wanted to be one. I saw from the outside and heard from so many of my peers and friends the problems that they were facing as new academic librarians of color who also happen to be “smart, tech-savvy, creative, passionate, hard-working, up-to-date, and consciously committed to staying that way.”
    > The field recruited the best and the brightest they could find within all fields through advertisements detailing the need for librarians, through scholarship programs, and of course by leaning on a person’s sense of wanting to help others, but unfortunately when these great minds found their first job they were treated to many of the conditions you mentioned in the article. On top of the issues you mentioned some of these new librarians were given low starting salaries, mediocre raises if one existed at all, and minimal professional development – especially for the mid career librarians (out of library school for more than 4 years). To further add to the issue, when these librarians questioned their directors, deans or what have you, they were often told “you should be lucky to have a job” or “you shouldn’t do this job for the money”. I have heard this statement and this sentiment time and time again and quite frankly this kind of thought process needs to stop. The love of a job is not going to pay a mortgage or your student loans. The fact is that talent is talent and the library world is foolish to think that their best and brightest will stay simply for the love of the job. There are far too many jobs out there that will gladly pay for librarian talent and SKILLS assuming that the librarian doesn’t mind being called something other than a librarian.

  4. Wow, you introduce a lot of great points in this article! I will try my best to contribute to some of your main ideas:

    First, it is good that you are concerned about the future of academic libraries. It is best to get an early start on drawing attention to issues like these. So, I am going to play devil’s advocate for a few sentences. Academic libraries are a great place for librarians to work, despite its present shortcomings. Yes, it’s true that some academic libraries offer non-competitive, lower-salaried, colleague-relationship lacking roles in the library. However, there are qualities unique to working in an academic library, such as you get to work with college students, have widespread access to countless databases, and be in an environment where mass amount of university research occurs.

    That being said, people are moving into non-academic jobs? Why? It’s simply because non-academic environments are more likely to be accomodating and these environments will allow for these library graduates to know that their skills are valued. For example, the corporate world appreciates candidates who can bring new skills to the table. They will make sure to put one’s unique skills to use, whereas some academic libraries frown upon trying new things or incorporating new skills. If academic libraries want to retain the individuals with idividuals with fresh ideas, they have to do the following:

    -Encourage the academic staff who want to continue in their same-old mechanisms to embrace new ideas by challenging them with new responsibilities.
    -Hire some people with fresh ideas/skills to revitalize a stale environment.
    -If the current staff continue to not be open to the new ideas/skills, get rid of them. It will make room for the people with refreshing mindsets and it’s less expensive than running your academic library to the ground.