Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Competitive and Commensurate with Experience

I was trying to look on the bright side of the recession, to point my feet to the sunny side of the street, to not worry and be happy, and all the other hippy-dippy, feel-good, perky things that stupid people do because they can’t face reality.

For example, in a recession, jobs are more scarce, and the greater competition means that the better and more qualified people end up with the jobs. That’s a good thing for everyone except the worse and less qualified people.

In librarianship, this should mean that the best and the brightest are getting the jobs. I know there are a lot of librarians and library school graduates out there who have had a hard time finding jobs for years, but having seen a lot of resumes and cover letters in my day, and heard about many more, I can say with some confidence that the good librarians get good jobs eventually, often commensurate with their abilities and talents.

Though the ALA and library schools have done there best to over-recruit into the profession, they haven’t succeeded in getting better librarians. They’ve just recruited more bad ones by making it ever easier to get into an MLS program and graduate. It turns out being willing to pay $20,000 a year for an online MLS degree isn’t a sufficient qualification for most jobs.

Eventually, even some within the ALA couldn’t live within the “librarian shortage” lie, and at some point we began hearing about the shortage of “library leadership.” That shortage has been in effect for decades, even though we had people in management positions. Now we can’t even fill a lot of those positions with warm bodies, much less good leaders.

So what gives? Why aren’t we getting those library leaders? Why are positions for Director of this and Assistant Director of that and Head of this other thing not being filled? Sometimes there aren’t even many applications, and sometimes even when an offer is made the candidate turns down the job.

Turns down a job!, some of you might say? Yes, indeed it happens. Either that or strong candidates don’t even bother to apply. Why might that be?

There could be many reasons, but there’s at least one that comes to mind based on some discussions I’ve been having with colleagues around the country in the past few weeks. It’s pretty simple. Libraries either don’t want, or can’t afford, the best librarians.

Think of job ads you’ve seen that say things like the salary is “competitive” or “commensurate with experience.” Guess what, that’s usually not true, even if the people posting the ad might think it’s true.

Librarian salaries are often “competitive” only if your competition is a bunch of risk averse ninnies who’ll work for chump change. This works out fine for entry level jobs, where the candidates are desperate and willing to do anything to get their big break into the profession, but it doesn’t work so well for advanced positions, or at least it doesn’t anymore.

Salaries are often “commensurate with experience” if by that one means the “experience of doing a lot of work for little pay.” In the past that might have worked, but it’s not working anymore, and the result is a lot of unfilled jobs.

Librarianship has become such a catchall profession that it’s just too easy to move on to greener pastures. Clever, ambitious people trained to be librarians can go ply their trade under other names in other types of organizations. They can become consultants full time or on the side.

It’s also easy to see the libraries that are serious about recruiting good people. They’ll often post the salary right in the ad. I was skimming through job ads and saw one for an associate dean in Houston for about $100,000 and another for a library system director in California for about $135,000. Not outstanding salaries, but respectable, and direct.

I saw another one for a library director Pennsylvania for about $40,000. Not as respectable, but at least direct. I spotted ads for library directors in Idaho and Wyoming for about $65,000 a year. I don’t know if that’s a lot for those places, but it’s certainly not enough to attract people who aren’t already in Idaho or Wyoming.

Contrast any of these with the vague claims about “competitive” or “commensurate with experience.” At least a library that offers $40,000 for a director knows that they’re getting, and the people who apply know what they’d be getting. Except for the libraries where the salary is just pathetic, I’d speculate that the libraries with the vaguest salary quotes are the ones having the hardest time filling positions.

You might not agree with me. But let’s say for the purpose of argument your library has one or more open management positions, and has vague claims about salary. If you had a head of technical services or head of reference position and advertised it for $120,000/year, how many good applicants do you think you’d get? More than now?

Moving up, let’s say you want an associate director or associate university librarian, but haven’t gotten many good applicants. Just post the ad with a salary of, say, $170,000/year and see how many great candidates would apply. Director of a large library or mid-size system? $250,000/year would probably get you some good candidates. $320,000 and you could take your pick.

That might sound like a lot to some librarians, but those salaries are still pretty small compared to what one can make as a manager in the private sector. If you could manage a reference department well, you could manage a corporate sales team for twice that salary. And if you could run a library system really well, you could probably be a CEO for a good company. And if you knew a lot about information technology, you could do even better.

If your library is having a hard time recruiting, maybe it’s like the places profiled in this Wall St. Journal story last week: Some Firms Struggle to Hire Despite High Unemployment.

The owner of Mechanical Devices in Bloomington, IL complains that he can’t find $13/hour machinists. It’s these darn jobless benefits that are that are keeping people from accepting his low pay. It couldn’t possibly be the crappy pay or that “temporary jobs…have increased 21% since September 2009 as more employers—including Mechanical Devices—hire through staffing agencies to help control health-care costs and maintain flexibility.”

A recruiter for the airline Emirates speculates that low attendance at job fairs might mean that Americans don’t have much of a spirit of adventure. Taking a salary of $30,000 to move to Dubai needs something more like a spirit of stupidity or desperation.

We see the same thing in plenty of library jobs. Libraries don’t pay much. They want to “maintain flexibility.” It turns out that when you don’t compensate people well and give them job security, or expect them to travel long distances to unattractive places, they don’t really want to work for you.

So you can claim all you like that your library wants “enthusiastic, experienced, innovative, motivated, highly qualified” librarians. Every library wants that. If you really want it, you’ll pay for it and you’ll be upfront about it. Otherwise, it would be more honest to post an ad saying, “We want the best person willing to work for our mediocre salary,” because that’s what savvy people see in a lot of job ads anyway.

It turns out that offer isn’t very attractive, and we see the result all around us in failed searches, unfilled jobs, and jobs filled with the least unsatisfactory candidates. What an exciting time to be a librarian!



  1. needs a 'nym says:

    But, AL, librarianship isn’t just a profession, it’s also a calling. Of course directors should be willing to work for relatively low salaries because the job is so fulfilling, just like the heads of charity organizations work for nominal salaries.

    Oh, wait. Successful non-profits know they have to pay in dollars, not just opportunities to indulge passions, to recruit good leadership. Never mind.

  2. I was hoping to be a librarian after I retire. A hobby job so to speak. Alas, the lousy economy means that I probably can’t afford to.

  3. doug henderson says:

    You are not taking the economy, at least currently, into account. Many people who might normally be interested in moving to a new area are trapped. Can’t sell their house, so they can’t afford to move. What is unfortunate is systems that place to much emphasis on experience. There are many bright, talented people that do not have 10 years expereice as a Director but have the leadership skills, the enthusiasm and are motivated. They are being excluded from the pool.

  4. I could not agree more. I hate seeing that “competitive” or “commensurate with experience” line. It’s code for “we don’t pay a living wage.” And you usually see it in the job ads that use lines like “enthusiastic, experienced, innovative, motivated, highly qualified librarians. I read that article about the machinists as well, and that was exactly my first thought: you get (or not) what you pay for. I just came out of the job market, and you can tell which employers are serious about getting someone good in and which are just going through the motions. The ones who are upfront about salary as well as other requirements tend to be a bit better. Although in librarianship, bit better is not really that much better.

  5. Stuck Here says:

    I’ve got 3 years of entry level tech services experience and I’m looking to move to greener pastures. The problem is that there are no entry level positions left in tech services as they’ve all been replaced by paras. All of the assistant department head positions require 5 years of management experience, fluency in Chinese/Arabic/German, plus specific undergraduate degrees. I keep hoping the positions will be re-posted with more realistic requirements.

  6. I think many are on the cusp of leaving librarianship. It certainly has always been the case that people leave for better pay and benefits, however the contraction of the labor market coupled with poor working conditions can only be speeding that trend. Now is also a good time to reposition oneself in anticipation of the greater economic opportunities of the future. I think that the AL is right on with the idea that some institutions will be left with sub-par survivor types.

  7. Very insightful!

    As we all know, most every library has an extra $200,000 or so sitting around to beef up salaries, and none of them have to deal with declining property values, budget hacking City Commissions/Boards/taxpayers/universities, and hiring freezes.

  8. … but those salaries are still pretty small compared to what one can make as a manager in the private sector. If you could manage a reference department well, you could manage a corporate sales team for twice that salary … Seriously!

  9. I Like Books says:

    A few things come to mind. Some of them might apply to libraries.

    I’ve seen employers complain about a shortage of scientists and engineers. What they mean is a shortage of scientists and engineers with the skills and experience they want and who will work at a price they like. Couple that with a desire for off-the-shelf parts rather than a willingness to train a typical graduate in a specialized field, and you have a call to increase the glut of science and engineering graduates and to raise H1B cap.

    And companies in general often do a lousy job with HR. They could know a year in advance that someone is going to retire. What they might do is identify internal candidates for the new position and begin grooming them with duties and experience that will prepare them. Or they might start looking for external candidates and bring them in early enough to learn the company and enter the new position strong. Instead, they don’t have a clue what your career path in the organization might look like. And a year passes and the Chief of Stuff retires, and they act like it’s a big surprise and suddenly switch into emergency mode, trying to make do with any halfway qualified warm body and throw him into a position that will take him a half year or a year to learn. And then comes the reorg, which, over time, slowly and quietly reverts back to the initial configuration.

  10. Lone Arranger says:

    I was going to post this to the “Come To Library School, Just Don’t Expect A Job” thread, but I’m sad to see that comments to that one are closed. Too bad, it should have been kept open so folks could add regular updates to the situation. Oh well, at least the AL has a new thread up on a similar topic.

    The bit of info I was going to post: I have it on good authority that there was a recent NARA opening with 38,000 applications. For ONE position. That’s not a typo – 38 THOUSAND. I realize the economy is bad, a lot of people are unemployed, and that a stable government job looks appealing right now. This position was also pretty open as far as the qualifications were concerned (although obviously people with an MLIS would make more suitable candidates than those without). But even taking all that into consideration, 38,000 applicants for a single library job is a staggering number. That says a lot about the current job market, right there.

  11. Dr. Pepper says:

    Interesting article.
    It reminds me of an interview I went to (for a public library) – the position was Head of Systems. Title-wise the position was a step up, pay wise, it was three steps down. They did manage to negotiate a pay increase with the city, but it was now two steps down (as opposed to three) – next loss = 1 step.

    It’s too bad, I liked the place, I just couldn’t pay my bills if I worked there. Ever since I’ve only applied to “pay commensurate with experience” types of positions if and only if I wanted to negotiate the pay (i.e. the job was compelling enough that it was worth negotiating for a much higher pay). I know that there is a certain bartering process when negotiating salaries and perks but the negotiation tends to be for 1,000-5,000 dollar increases, not 10,000+

  12. 1. “For example, in a recession, jobs are more scarce, and the greater competition means that the better and more qualified people end up with the jobs.”

    Not necessarily. Google “overqualified.” Employers turn people down if they think that the person might jump ship the minute something better comes along. (Of course – that assumes that our economy will ever recover to that point. I’m not hopeful.)

    2. Isn’t “least unsatisfactory” a double negative or a contradiction in terms? It doesn’t make sense to me.

    Other than that – well put. Of course people won’t take jobs if they don’t pay enough to pay your mortgage and feed your family.

  13. I am just starting my MLIS in Ontario. Many of my friends are starting their Masters (Economics, Public History, etc) and their classes are very small and focused. I could not find very many statistics or answers to my questions online so I e-mailed my school contact and found they admitted 200 MLIS students for this year. So many that they had to split us into 3 course groups. Compared to other programs, I was so surprised and confused. On top of that, we choose our electives second semester to start toward a concentration if we choose…so now the question is WHERE ARE THE JOBS? Are they medical? are they IT? are the Public? Childrens Services? I need some direction. After not getting a job after college, and then again after University….I just need a job so I can start my life already.

    Thanks in advance for all your help.

  14. Dr. Pepper says:

    Here’s my advice – quit the MLIS now while you have a chance. The fact that they admitted 200 students is a sign that you will have a ton of competition in the job market if you want to get into a library job (and the market is hard enough). If you really want to stay, focus on management, IT and some niche field like archives, this way you can get a job outside the library field when you graduate

  15. I Like Books says:


    If you’d rather say “most satisfactory”, that would rather imply that of several attractive options, you like one of them the most. I don’t think that accurately communicates the opinion.

    “Least unsatisfactory” is a way of saying “the lesser evil”, or “the one I hate least”. That is, you don’t like any of the options, they’re all unsatisfactory. But some are more unsatisfactory than others, and some are less.

  16. poorlibrarian says:

    Boy howdy, you hit this right on. I can’t tell you the number of library jobs I’ve been offered where they wanted my experience for their starting salary. One I stopped mid-interview when they announced that they “don’t pay more than starting salary to any new hires.” Not only could I not work for that, I wasn’t inclined to work there, since apparently my experience was worth nothing to them. “You were our best candidate,” the HR person said. Well of course! But apparently you don’t want to pay for “best,” you want to pay for “supported by someone else”!

    I think this is saddest when the library is replacing someone who is retiring after many years. Clearly that person was making more money than a starting librarian. It is not going to sink your budget to pay me less than they were making, even if it is not as little as if you hired someone with no experience. Arguing budget difficulties holds no water in this situation. Likewise when you want someone to do something new and different and energetic. Good people cost money. And the salary differences are so tiny to lose the candidate you want – $3000, $5000, when your budget is $5,000,000. Add the amount of time-in-money the training person spends on your new, bottom-of-the-scale librarian and see how that makes your savings look.

    And we wonder why libraries often end up stagnant, with the worst people around for years. The less-competent know better than to look for another job.

  17. Real Librarian says:

    Competitive and commensurate with experience are human resource terms used to see if you are truly qualified.

    If, during an interview, you give a figure too high or too low, they know you are not the person for the job because you don’t know what the real going rate is.

    It is a sham.

    They know how much money they have for the position, just put it in the ad and base your hiring on the candidates understanding of MARC, LOC, DDC, or DDR.

  18. another f-ing librarian says:

    of course salaries are a problem. and AL’s dead on. the answer isn’t to just give everyone a raise, unfortunately. what more money does, is deepen what is right now a fairly wide and shallow applicant pool.

    and: what doug henderson says. most people are pretty trapped. and it’s not just because of the inability to sell one’s house and relocate. there are so few acceptable job openings, that we’re gridlocked. good, experienced people who would like a change are not leaving jobs they’d like to leave.

    heck. we might all feel a little breath of fresh air in our lives if we’d all just get up and move to the first library to our right.

  19. Bruce Campbell says:

    Is anyone else noticing that they are surrounded by slouches at their library job? Do you feel like you don’t fit in to the mediocre “phone-it-in” work ethic of librarians? It is time to jump ship.

    Raimi isn’t responding to my texts.

  20. Real Librarian says:

    Amen, Bruce.

    I do my job here plus part of the director (due to incompetence), the reference librarian (due to laziness), the other tech services librarina (due to her doing her other job here on our clock) plus other things that should be done and wouldn’t if I didn’t do them.

    This is driven by my upbringing and background to find something productive to do at all times.

    But, this is a government run union shop, so I don’t get any more pay than anyone else. There is no merit pay. There are no bonuses.

    Getting out is a definite option as soon as something comes along.

  21. needs a 'nym says:

    Bruce, I have noticed that. I’ve also noticed that several of the slouches are genuinely convinced that they’re overworked. I’m not sure how that happens, although those do happen to be the people who’ve never had non-library jobs.

  22. Explibrarian says:

    Poorlibrarian is so right. Over the past decade a local institution pays so poorly for such inflated qualifications that they seem to hire nothing buy academic librarians who didn’t get tenure for their one-librarian position. They know nothing about all the nittygritty of the job so the rest of us librarians in the area have to mentor them. After 3–THREE–of these I got tired of it and decided to be less helpful and let someone else teach this person how to do the work. If they’d pay a decent salary and not get impressed so easily with academic librarians with no idea how to run a one-librarian library, they’d easily attract someone who knew the job. Instead they get someone both uninterested in this type of job and unqualified to do it. I expect they’ll just get rid of the library next.

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