Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Stupidity, Conspiracy, or Greed?

There’s been talk of a supposed “librarian shortage” for a long time, even though there have been librarian job shortages going back to at least the 1970s. I’ve been speculating why this over-recruitment drive and the myth of the librarian shortage have been so popular.

For the ALA, I assumed it was just because nobody there had any idea what they were talking about. This isn’t so unusual in large professional organizations. It’s not like the folks at ALA have any investment in library jobs. After all, they don’t work in libraries.

Then I reasoned that they want more librarians so that those who do manage to get jobs will join ALA and give them more money. The amounts are so small that it’s not much of a power grab, but still it’s something.

As for the schools, the motivation has obviously been money. Their incentive is to have the lowest possible curricular standards and the highest possible tuition. With distance “education,” they now have that, plus they’re accessible to anyone in the country who can fork over several thousand dollars a year to attend. It’s perfect!

Now I’m wondering if the best explanation isn’t a conspiracy theory. The ALA and library schools are in a conspiracy to depress salaries so that libraries can get the best librarians for less money than they might otherwise be able to do.

I hate to bring in Marx, but Marx’s analysis of capitalism works here. If there is a pool of available but unused labor, it depresses salaries all around and means that the employer rather than the employee has maximum choice. Is this being done deliberately?

Average librarian salaries and the fact they haven’t gone up dramatically should make it obvious to even the village idiot librarian that there’s no librarian shortage. Surely, the ALA and LIS professors can’t be that stupid. We’re talking LIS profs and not physicists, but still. Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with economics would know that there’s no librarian shortage.

So, I’m suspended on the horns of a dilemma, if dilemmas have horns. We have two possibilities. Either the ALA folks and LIS professors are so stupid that they don’t understand how there can’t possibly be a librarian shortage, or they are conspiring to oversupply librarians so that salaries remain low while lying all the time about a supposed shortage.

It’s possible to excuse the LIS schools from the conspiracy, but only if we conclude that they’re either too stupid to realize there can’t possibly be a librarian shortage, or that they are so greedy they deliberately oversupply librarians because it makes the most economic sense for the library schools rather than the profession.

With the ALA, it’s the same. They escape only if either they’re too stupid to know better, or if somehow having an oversupply of librarians benefits them in some way. However, the economic benefits for ALA are considerably less than for the library schools.

Library schools make their money up front, taking thousands from students who don’t really know what to expect. But if librarians are oversupplied and salaries therefore are kept artificially low, then there’s less money for librarians to give to the ALA.

Thus, I guess we have a trilemma. The people who run library schools are either stupid, in a conspiracy to keep librarians salary low, or boost their own finances at the expense of the profession and the poor dolts fooled by them.

Whereas the ALA is either stupid, in a conspiracy, or stupid in a different way.

There’s probably some better explanation, but I can’t think of it at the moment. Unless it’s the librarians who are stupid enough to fall for this in the first place.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. needs a 'nym says:

    Since I’ve been saying librarians are largely (not wholly!) stupid since my first library conference, I’m sympathetic to that hypothesis.

    And since the ALA is all about benefiting libraries, not librarians, the salary-setting hypothesis has appeal as well.

    I would reject any hypothesis requiring l-schools’ active complicity, simply because that would require a level of organization that is not evident. (Not a slam at library schools, even though there’s plenty other stuff to criticize. The faculty in academic units generally are too querulous to put together the united front required for a true conspiracy.)

    I’ll offer a fourth hypothesis: Librarians typically come from a humanistic background, taking an inductive approach to reasoning rather than a deductive approach. That is, humanists derive a number of premises and then reason their way forward rather than testing those premises against facts.

    If you assume that the number of librarians needed per student or citizen is a constant, and if the number of students or citizens is always growing, then it’s evident that the number of librarians needed will also always grow.

    If you assume that every librarian who retires will need to be replaced, and if you assume that librarians tend to retire at a given age, then there’s always a need for replacement librarians. If there’s a demographic bubble moving toward that given age, then there’s an approaching crisis of replacement.

    The problem, I think, may not be conspiracy, stupidity, or even venality; it’s just an unfortunate result of the humanistic method’s biggest weakness. The premises (there’s a need of x librarians per person; people retire and must be replaced) seem reasonable, so the library establishment thinks that logic itself demands an imminent shortage. Unfortunately for those of us suckered in by the promise of plentiful good job opportunities, those premises are not supported by reality.

  2. Real Librarian says:

    When librarians start to act like professionals and create an organization for librarians, you are going to see institutionalized repression.

    Again, remember it is the American LIBRARIES Association. They care more about the keeping the institutions going more than the people who work there.

  3. TexasLib says:

    I don’t think one hand knows what the other is doing. I think that a librarian shortage was projected a long time ago, and that bit of information has just been latched onto, and not let go yet.

    I think the schools do it for the profit, they are businesses after all and more beholden to the almighty dollar then professions well-being.

    I don’t think ALA has a dog in this fight.

    We can’t forget the effect of the economy, which, in my area, has been very strong and we supposedly are not a part of the country hit hard. I saw a instant drop if offered positions in late 2008 though – job posting went from pages to a handful to almost non-existent.

    I don’t think it’s a conspiracy as much as a set of unfavorable conditions for future library school graduates.

    That said, I am in one of those distance education programs. I know the quality is not as high as a more rigorous program on campus. It was my own personal best option though, because of where I live. I can’t move. I am not married to the idea I must work in a library though, and my interests can apply to other information areas.

  4. Dashel Teah says:

    Someone once said “no conspiracy is needed when everyone involved already agrees”. Perhaps that applies here:

    Many staff positions are defined to require an MLS. Perfectly qualified people without an MLS aren’t eligible and weakly qualified MLS holders get some of these jobs. There, I said it.

    The MLS is sometimes, not always but often enough, really not so big a differentiator in terms of training or skill – it’s a membership card for an exclusive club with access to higher salaries. (Yes, there are also plenty of MLS recipients who are truly well trained and have exceptional skills.)

    Well, if you hold that membership card the question might arise within the institution you work for: should a position be redefined so as to not require an MLS? Obviously, people have a personal incentive – no conspiracy required – to protect their investment in an MLS and their advantaged position and thus to reflexively tout the (alleged) importance of an MLS.

    To reach the conclusion that maybe we don’t need lots more MLS holders, a lot of existing MLS holders would have to reason that perhaps their advantages in the industry aren’t entirely appropriate. As individuals, people resist questioning the worth of their own credentials that way. So, of course they conclude that the degree is vital and that the system of cranking them out has to be protected and viewed as critical. Its a short step from there to “shortage” claims.

  5. There might be a shortage in specialty librarians. For example, a GIS librarian or someone with experience in bioinformatics who could be literate in the health sciences.

  6. Not A Newbie says:

    I agree with needs a ‘nym. I think the demographic bubble of aging librarians combined with faulty premises has led to a way-over-estimation of the job market for new librarians. Even back in the late 1990s it wasn’t difficult to see that not every retiring librarian would be replaced; attrition has been a popular method for cutting payroll costs for decades. And, of course, those promised retirements are now delayed as many librarians face the loss of nest-eggs meant to see them through their “golden” years. As for LIS schools: I recently attended an “information” (aka recruitment) session with my alma mater–a library school that boasts one of the largest enrollments of library students in the country. I was concerned that there seemed to be a disconnect between the promises of library school (a new career) and the reality of the job market for new graduates. I was told, flatly, that insuring jobs for new graduates was not the responsibility of the school. Their obligation was simply to provide the required education leading to a degree from an ALA accredited institution. It’s clear that the only sector of the library world that is actually thriving are the library schools. Probably not a conspiracy but certainly a willingness to take advantage of wrong and misleading assumptions.

  7. Mr. Kat says:

    ‘Nym, I would support your statement about library schools being too unorganized to be in on this conspiracy, but then I have seen what happens when a library school becomes darn near closing.

    University Education is now a tangible business product aimed at turning revenues far more than it is a social institution serving the educational needs to the professional community. It’s not just the library schools – it’s the entire university organization. And the entire organization is aimed at selling as much of their product as possible, the long term results be damned!

    The first step is restructuring and realignment. The library school needs to survive, so they pick up every one of the BEST arguements about the profession and they sell their degree to the public. Universities generally believe in professional organizations for their information, and what could possibly be a better organization to represent library education than the ALA? Regardless of what is true or not, the only statistics that matter are those that sell calssroom seats.

    Don’t forget that the ALA has all sorts of great promptional deals for library students to get engaged in their orgnaization! The coupling is almost too transparent!

    The next step is to hire a new director who is closely aligned with the ALA ideology – someone who is on the cutting edge of the librarian shortage. Or someone who is good at drumming up a cohesive presentation that sells ths school. End result, good enrollment! And the library school doens’t have to close – they can show the university profits, AKA reasons the school should recieve MORE funding, not less! And every degree in any field that is not general studies makes the university more money – General Education classes number a good 40 credits, no matter what undergraduate degree you are pulling up these days.

    The final step is to get as many people graduated as quickly as possible – and cut them off from the university as quickly as possible once they have graduated. DON’T foster any social environments where the students have long term contact with each other or future students, because that might discourage students from either entering the field or finishing their degrees. And identify “troublemakers’ as quickly as possible, and ensure everyone in the organization is aware of them and get them through and out as quickly as possible!

    And of course the library school has to generate signs that their Product is successful. So they isolate the successful instances and bring them back as examples of where this program can lead. Meanwhile, the average students are spending 2 and 3 grand on the job application process, often in airline tickets alone. Something is not right here…because the star graduates are presenting themselves in average jobs, not star jobs, and the star people on the faculty are people who have been in the field for 20 and 30 years plus. Disparity much?

    The Higher Education profession thrives because under and uneducated people think the road to the best jobs are paved with degrees. They’ve been fed this by a very strong media campaign from all sides, in all fields. High Schools aim all of their efforts at getting as many people towards college as possible. The thing is, I’ve already run into people with walls plastered with degrees, who laugh at the walls and are quick to tell you they’re all worthless. Yes, worthless. In this economy, I think it might be even more evident what is worth something and what is not.

    Basically, any job comes down to having social connections who know you well and have work you can do that they need to have done. If you’re overqualified, they won’t hire you – you’ll fly as soon as something better comes along and they don’t have the patience to jsut hold you for a while. Underqualified, well, if they know you well, and you have good personal qualities, they’ll hire you. It’s easier to take a risk on skills than it is on character. Otherwise, if you’re coming out of the blue, Not a Chance!

    You start out with no experience and no education. They won’t hire you. So you get one or the other. Now you’re not hireable because they want the other – and you don’t have it. So you get it – and now you’re overqualified for the positions that are available, because in truth your resume now competes with the resumes held by the people on the hiring committee – but you lack their experience!

    Meanwhile, the truly rich and successful people have made it because they recognized their niche, left the rat race, and went out and did it. Microsoft, for example…

  8. noneofyourbusiness says:

    Mr. Kat has a good point about how the majority of library stars are not working star jobs.

    Yes this propaganda is all about keeping library schools in business and keeping library wages down. I saw a job posting recently in my area: Business Librarian, MLS required, relevant experience preferred, that paid $30,000! Clearly this job will be going to someone that does not need to support themselves or their family.

  9. I’m not sure what all the problems are but I do know that library schools are making it seem to prospective students that there are tons of library jobs available when clearly there are not. Furthermore many of us including me have student loans from paying for library school that we may never pay off. Thus contributing to higher taxes and the government’s deficit. This whole fiasco is much more than just library schools who want and need money. People need to start really looking at the job market before going to library school.

  10. Mr. Kat says:

    In this economy that sounds like a job that will support a family! Any job, right now!

    It will probably go to the person with the best social connection to the library hiring committee – this may be the ONLY job they can find!! It’s also likely that they already have the candidate lined up – pre-job announcement. The listing is just a formality the library has to go through for every job thanks to federal/state Equal Opportunity laws.

    Even if they don’t, I bet they’ll get no less than 50 applications – and probably at least 100.

  11. Real Librarian says:

    There is no librarian shortage even though there are many aging librarians who are finally retiring.

    Why is there no shortage?

    Because libraries are dying and the institutions that support them are looking to other means to fill their information requests.

    We can stand in our ivory towers and scream until we are blue that this method leads to poor information gathering skills, a dumber populace, and many other bad things but in the end, no one really cares.

    Soon the ALA convention will be like a Civil War re-enactment camp: people dressing up and playing librarian for a day before they head back to the Stop-n-Shop to bag groceries.

    We have already lost our battle at Waterloo and it is only a matter of time before we turn out the lights.

    Good night all.

  12. As a recent library school graduate, I really wish the librarian shortage myth would find a hole and die. Libraries are being clobbered with job applications. Librarians with 10 years of experience are applying for entry level positions, so people like me with my fresh and clean MLIS and only one year experience have no shot of landing a job.

    My theory was always that the ALA and others push this “librarian shortage” idea, based on shaky facts (sure, lots of librarians are retiring over the next ten years, but there are one hundred times as many waiting to take their place), to kind of ensure their future. Library schools have a clear investment in making people believe that job prospects are bright at the end of the $60,000 rainbow. MLS professors want to keep their jobs. The ALA wants to keep selling memberships. Etc.

    It’s hard when the establishment is not being honest about itself. Very frustrating.

  13. I Like Books says:

    I’ve seen the same thing in physics, but it’s pretty much intrinsic to academia. For the professor of physics, it’s an inherent good to have more physics students. Never mind that there aren’t enough PhD-level jobs in physics and related fields for all of the graduates, let’s get the Physics Phair going and do some outreach to the high schools! But if the student does head into industry, finance, or another non-academic field, he’s pretty much counted off as a loss. And so it’s not wise to express those kinds of interests when applying for a post-doc.

    I’m convinced there’s no malevolence or conspiracy involved. It’s just a “more people should be like me” kind of thing.

  14. I love this piece…I think any students in the audience should print it and post it around their buildings and classrooms on campus. If nothing else, it’ll make the professors squirm. And I do love making professors squirm.

  15. What about unionizing?

  16. There has been a shortage for years of librarians OK with part-time, no benefits, no set schedule public desk jobs, ever since directors figured that a FT vacancy at the top (or even the middle or lower level) had to mean an available FT entry level job. But now that managers and even directors are being laid off, and that students are balking at the exorbitant cost at diploma mills in order to be unemployed, there aren’t enough “qualified” librarians.

  17. I’ll amplify what Sarah said; if you are willing to hustle, there is plenty of opportunity to work as a part-time or adjucnt librarian; if you do it at the JC level, it can pay very well. I think that there are plenty of vacant FT jobs as well, however since they tend to be governmental jobs, when times are tough they will not be filled. My advice, and I’ve lived this out, is to take what work you can get in the field, build you resume up and keep looking for work. Eventually you’ll come up with a good job.

  18. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    “weakly qualified MLS holders” – more and more of them all the time.

  19. another f-ing librarian says:

    I think librarianship is a lot like Amway. Everyone trying to get everyone else to sell, no one trying to get anyone to buy.

  20. Diane Roberts says:

    Off topic somewhat, but I’ve wondered for years why there is the almost universal requirement for an MLS? Given that the program is a LOT of work, but not rigorous (much like education classes), it just doesn’t make sense to require a master’s level degree to work in a library.

    Many years ago I went to Texas Woman’s University and got a bachelor’s degree in library science. True enough I needed the masters, which I dutifully got a little later, but people are still asking if you need a college degree to be a librarian. You could get even more training with a bachelors, isn’t it usually 36 hours in your major? And maybe 30 for a master’s degree, and don’t people have to have a few hours in some other field to round out the hours required?

    I suppose that would generate even more graduates looking for jobs though. So never mind. But the entry level MLS is still dumb.
    Diane in Houston

  21. Anonymous says:

    I work with government stats and can assure you there IS a coming wave of retirees, across all professions, and there are not enough Gen X/Yers to fill all those spots. The number of Boomers are greater than the number of Gen X/Yers – it’s simple math. There will be labor shortages across the board in the coming decade. We may have already started seeing those shortages if the economy hadn’t tanked.

    That said, how severe will the librarian shortage be? Hard to say. In this age, when it’s popular to cut library budgets, there’s a real possibility that jobs will be eliminated, rather than posted and re-filled, as staff retire. I’m interested to see how this plays out.

    As for the conspiracy theory that the schools and ALA are promoting the oversupply of qualified librarians, I don’t buy it. Yes, the ALA and the accredited schools work closely hand in hand – but who typically promotes the idea that there is a job shortage in this field? Neither. It’s the media (like those Top 10 Career Opportunity articles you see on Yahoo! news) and stat gathering organizations like the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( that push the idea that there will be jobs available soon. I went to two library schools (tranferred midway), and never once had either administration tell me, “You entered a great profession! There are going to be so many career opportunities for you!” Instead, they were actually quite truthful about how hard it is to get a job in this field, and encouraged us to break into it as early as possible via internships or clerk jobs because that experience is crucial to getting a professional level job.

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