April 23, 2018

Where Are We Headed? An Unscientific Survey | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaI think we all have ideas about where library work is heading, and, like many others in our profession, I sometimes get asked questions about the field by people who are considering going to library school. After having just had one of those queries posed to me the other day, it occurred to me that it was time for another of my wholly unscientific surveys:

“I have one of my one-question surveys…and I’m hoping you’re willing to respond. I’m purposely not refining the question any more than what you see below, because I’d really like to see what folks have to say spontaneously rather than respond to what I anticipate you might say. So please write as little or as much as you like: all responses will be anonymized, and although I’ll aggregate answers into groups as much as possible, I’ll also give some answers verbatim to provide context.”

Question: If you were asked right now by someone considering going to library/information school what the growing (‘hot’) types of librarianship are (as in, in what kind of librarianship are they likely to be able to get a job and enjoy a good career), what would you tell them?”

I sent the question to about 100 public librarians, school librarians, academic librarians, and library school faculty in the United States and Canada, including frontline workers and managers/administrators, and waited. Not for very long. The first response came in within the hour, and they’ve been coming in steadily ever since (so far it’s at 77 and counting). I’m awed, both in terms of numbers and content.

The following is a word cloud of the responses:

Word cloud

Now I’ll give you the counts, in alphabetical order (a lot of respondents gave multiple answers):

Archives 1

Area studies 1

Assessment 4

Big data 4

Born-digital archives 1

Children’s librarian 2

Civic engagement 1

Community service 3

Computers 4

Conservation 1

Data 16

Data acquisition 1

Data analysis 5

Data management 10

Data mapping 3

Data mining 7

Data presentation 4

Data preservation 6

Data visualization 9

Digital archives 4

Digital humanities 2

Digital libraries 3

Digitization 4

Don’t do it 10

Foreign languages 2


Graphic design 1

Informatics 3

Information Technology 6

Library instruction 6

Management 2


Metadata 8

Metadata management 1


Outreach 6

People skills 8

Preservation 1

Project manager 1

Public librarians 3

Rare books 1


Reference / research skills 6

Scholarly communication librarians 1

School librarian 1

Social justice 2

Special collections cataloging 1


User experience 5

Web design 3


As you can see, a lot of responses concern data—or at least, many of those who answered perceive that that’s where the future of libraries lies. To go a bit beyond the data, here are some (anonymized) quotes from the responses:

‘”Get a job” = computers. Computers, computers, computers, computers. If it’s special collections, where everyone is looking for an archivist for born-digital records, or public services, where there seems to be a demand for user experience and analytics expertise, or technical services, where everyone now needs to write their own scripts to migrate data, the trend is computer expertise. “Enjoy a good career” is much tougher. I don’t have an answer for that.”

“There will also be a need for librarians who have strong people skills and can work well with others in the community, develop partnerships, and help the library collaboratively address community needs.”

“My gut reaction is to try to convince the person that investing in library school might not be a good idea. If pressed, I would suggest focusing on all things digital.”

“The baby boomers are retiring, and I see an increasing challenge to find people who want to work at the top, deal with politics, fiscal problems, rapidly changing technology and still have a life when the day is done. An MLS does not prepare a person to become a director, so an MPA, MBA are a great complement. It may also be a bit of a challenging career path, but it’s not impossible to find an entry-level job as a director of a small library and then move up to a larger one.”

“Cataloging is dead. (Long live cataloging!)” [This came from a cataloger.]

“Anything with the word ‘Metadata’ in it. Am I the zillionth person to suggest this?”

“I’d tell them this is the wrong question. The question to ask is what kind of librarianship he/she is interested in and how to find the jobs that will enable them to enact their interests.”

“I would tell them to get a graduate degree in another area or become an expert in their chosen field, then go to library school (if they feel they still have to).”

“Go to business school.”

“For me it would depend greatly on whether or not the person had library experience. If not, I’d recommend getting a library job first to 1) figure out if it’s really a good fit and 2) get some work experience, since you’re unlikely to be hired for a librarian job without any practical exposure to the profession. For someone working in libraries, I’d advise them to think about what they really want to do. The library degree may not be the best training for where library work needs to be going. If we’re honest with ourselves, advanced subject degrees, computer science degrees, and MBAs might be better prep for the actual job to be done. To sum up: Should that eager young library enthusiast go to library/information school? Possibly, after careful consideration of what s/he needs to learn for the library career s/he wants, and only after first actually working in a library (in any capacity whatsoever). For those of us already established in the library profession, especially hiring managers, we collectively need to get over the notion of the MLIS as sacred fetish credential. It is simply a technical degree and its absence should be ignored if the applicant acquired the relevant techne via another path.”

“Community service, social justice, digital data management, collaboration with related disciplines to produce bidisciplinary information professionals.”

I was especially glad to see someone mention social justice as a hot area of librarianship; I’m the other person who gave that answer. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the person who sent this response was one of my favorite professors in library school. I was struck by a number of other things:

  1. Only one person mentioned “project manager”
  2. Among all the technology and data responses, “people skills” were pretty high up there in the count
  3. Something the raw data doesn’t show, but that I saw in the responses: “public librarians” was highlighted by two academic librarians and one public librarian
  4. A number of respondents suggested getting other degrees either in addition to, or instead of, the MLS or MLIS
  5. A significant number of folks came right out and said, when it came to going to library school, “Don’t do it.”

I’ll end with one respondent’s quote that captures what I think our roles in libraries are or are becoming:

“The role of the library in providing access to everyone in the community, but also to create content, provide a platform, and then serve as the human interface to much of it, is a role that has been increasing for a long time.”

And, frankly, that pulls together a large number of the words in the cloud above. With wholehearted thanks to all the kind and generous colleagues who responded so thoughtfully to my question.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. This article is meaningless, 100% useless fluff.

    • Dear Graciela,

      Sorry you found it to be so, but I appreciate your reading the article and taking the time to comment.

      Many thanks,

  2. The kind of “statistics” we’ve come to expect from Library Journal.

    • Dear Graciela,

      Not sure where statistics come into what is noted as an “unscientific survey,” but if your comment helped you to vent your feelings and made you feel better, then it accomplished something, I suppose.

      Thanks for reading,

  3. Laura Ploenzke says:

    Having worked in a public library for the past 11 years in the Adult Services department at 16 hours a week, I decided to get my MLIS because I was not allowed to even apply for a full-time job unless I had that degree. I am one semester away from earning my degree, but I continue to read that MLIS degrees aren’t the way to go anymore. I don’t like the fact that 10 people you surveyed said, “Don’t do it” (which is what I was told years ago by two different librarians, which is why I didn’t do this sooner). I hope that all of this time, effort, and money haven’t been for naught because librarianship is now my fifth career (after journalism, teaching, technical writing, and tutoring), and I am certain I have finally found my calling. Truly hoping that the MLIS is “not dead yet”. :)

    • Dear Laura,

      Echoing your words, I truly hope the MLS / MLIS is not dead yet, too. And I don’t think it is — when asked, I encourage folks to work in a library before they start library school to make sure they like it, and to figure out what kind of librarianship they’ll want to pursue. But I still have confidence in the degree, and if I had to do it over again, I’d still go to library school. I think I’d also take courses in other fields that would enhance my skill set (languages, IT, management,– whatever helps to further advancement in the chosen library path). I was lucky enough to try a lot of different kinds of work along the way (access services, interlibrary loan, reference, collection development, e-resources, and library instruction) and to learn on the job and from colleagues, but nowadays supplementary coursework may be a faster way for folks to move along in their careers.
      Glad to hear you’re so close to your degree, and best of luck to you. It speaks volumes that after four other careers you have found your calling; I and many colleagues also think of librarianship being a calling, rather than simply a job.
      Best wishes, and thanks for writing,

  4. Elizabeth says:

    As always, I so appreciate your column and friendly tone. Here’s to lots of happy librarians in the future – it is a great career and can push you to explore job options you never would have before!

    • Dear Elizabeth,

      That’s a great point about pushing you to explore job options you never would have before — the field really does let you move in a number of different directions that aren’t always possible to anticipate in advance, since library needs are changing so much, and so fast. And more power to your wish for lots of happy librarians in the future — I think the field is expanding, and holds enormous promise for those intrepid enough to make the most of the opportunities it offers.

      Thanks very much for writing, with best wishes,

  5. In addition to the tech and data aspects already mentioned, I’d also say that in my experience as a longtime academic library director, often in systems that required a subject masters as well, I have found that it is very difficult to recruit science librarians and, to a slightly lesser degree, business librarians. And every person I know who had a science or business degree and went to library school with the aim of working in an academic library had one or more job offers even before they graduated, so high is the demand. This was often true even in the worst of the recession. At my last job, we actually started an internship program for science students, hoping to expose them to the vast array of types of work in modern libraries.

    • Excellent points, Rosa, and I should have added, as number 6 in the list of items I was “struck” by, that I was surprised more folks didn’t explicitly mention science backgrounds as a hot area. There has been a dearth of science-specialist librarians for as long as I can remember, and I’ve had the same experience as you: those with a degree in the sciences can go very far, very fast, as librarians (and my science librarian friends appear to enjoy their work very much).

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, with best wishes,

  6. This is the kind of thorough research I’ve come to expect from the library field.

    • Dear “lemon” (whomever you are, since you wouldn’t give your real name),

      I think Wikipedia says it best in this instance: “”When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a proverbial phrase used to encourage optimism and a can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune. Lemons suggest bitterness, while lemonade is a sweet drink.”

      There’s a nice recipe to be found here: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_lemonade/.
      Hope you find it useful.

      Best wishes,

  7. You are pretty awesome, Cheryl. How does librarians feel about previewing books to order?

    Thanks for the insight, which is the first notion towards empirical studies.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Jess. I’ll be interested to see if others weigh in about your question on previewing books to order; I get sent review copies of quite a bit of material and find it very helpful. And I would love to see someone do a real empirical study done on the topic of where we’re headed in librarianship!

      Best wishes,

  8. Pam Matthews says:

    Cheryl, I have to say you’re responding to trolls with far more grace than I would. You were totally up front that this was an unscientific survey and that your sample was not randomly chosen. That being said, there IS value in getting a snapshot of what professionals in the field think, and this can be construed as a tiny bit of qualitative research. It’s also, as Jess pointed out, a first step toward an actual empirical study.

    So keep on neutralizing the trolls!

    Anyway…if I’d been one of the folks asked, I would have said (besides adding my voice to the don’t do it chorus) is that general managerial skills are always needed. Be able to read a spreadsheet/budget and understand where the numbers are coming from and going. Be able to find ways to promote your collection and your programming. Be able to work with and manage other folks. Be able to do that project management only one person mentioned.

    These are all skills needed both in AND out of the profession…so if you leave librarianship…or if unfortunately your library job leaves you…you should be in good shape.

    • Dear Pam,

      Thanks for the compliment, and for your thoughts about where folks should be shoring up their skills for the profession. The general managerial skills you mention are skills that will serve folks very well, no matter where they go in or out of the library profession. I’m especially struck by the spreadsheet and budgeting advice, since I think that’s an area that can be tricky for folks to attain on the job unless they’re in a management position already, yet it’s important if folks want to make it to the next level in a library (or any business). A basic management and / or budgeting course could give them an edge with this, and those are available in continuing ed programs. And being able to work with other folks well is the first step in being able to manage them — that’s a skill that I think should be emphasized and encouraged by managers in helping to mentor the next generation of managers. It’s not necessarily the person who talks the loudest and most frequently who will be a good manager, but rather the person who brings the group / team together and makes it possible for everyone to work well together that, IMHO, makes an effective manager.
      Thanks for writing, with best wishes,

  9. Matt the Librarian says:

    Hey, I e-mailed a few friends the other day, and 2 of them said they couldn’t find jobs as bibliographers. Unemployment must be skyrocketing! My original e-mail was forwarded a couple of times by one of my great aunts, who forwards EVERYTHING (sigh), and I got a few more responses from retired librarians, just letting me know they had retired, but who also forwarded the e-mail to some other folks who say they found jobs as children’s librarians. Children’s librarianship is on the rise!

    • Hi Matt,
      I’ve wondered about how folks seeking bibliographer jobs have been faring, so thanks for adding that info. to the conversation. What I’m seeing are jobs that include collection development along with public-facing work like reference and teaching, rather than solely collection development. And I’m heartened to hear about your friends finding work as children’s librarians, and hope children’s librarianship IS on the rise, since children’s librarians can make such a difference in kids’ lives, as well as set the stage for patrons becoming lifelong library users and supporters.
      Thanks for writing, Matt,