Tell Me My Math is Wrong, Because I Don’t Like These Numbers

So I have a Google Alert for the phrase “Hiring Librarians,” not just because I am vain and want to know when people are talking about me, but because it sends me a little sampling of the Google zeitgeist for library hiring issues. Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recently updated page on the Occupational Outlook for Librarians popped onto my radar.

What first struck me is the figure that library jobs are expected to grow 7% from 2010 to 2020.  Although this is slower than the average growth rate for jobs, this actually seems high to me. It may be cynicism coupled with months of underemployment, but when I think of the job market for librarians, I feel like we are treading water.  Sure, there are a few new positions being created for web, assessment, and user experience librarians, but our profession has suffered massive cutbacks over the past few decades. I have spoken with staff at libraries that have been inversely decimated: only one out of ten librarians has been left standing.  This is just my personal feeling though, and I have no desire to argue with my beloved Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When I asked Twitter if the figure felt right to other librarians, @librarian_lali responded by wondering about the growth rate of library school graduates.  Good question!

I took a quick look at the annual review for my alma mater, SJSU SLIS, and found that there were 676 of us 2011 graduates (page 3…if you flip a little bit further you will find me being totally *famous* on page 22).  The BLS’ 7% growth figure translates to 10,800 new jobs.  If SJSU holds steady at 676 a year, that means 6,760 new librarians will be created from this one program alone.  Leaving 4,040 spots to be split by ten years worth of graduates from the other 57 ALA accredited library schools.

To look at another figure, Library Journal’s Annual Placements and Salaries Survey (2011) includes 38 schools, which have a total of 4,790 2010 graduates.  This total is much more ominous, because even in its incompleteness, it leaves us with a surplus of 37,100 new jobless graduates over that ten year period.  Of course some librarians might retire, if they decide their retirement funds have bounced back or that they can’t bear to explain Boolean searching even one more time.

While I was thinking about this, I came across Brett Bonfield’s piece Is the United States Training Too Many Librarians or Too Few? (Part 1) at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. He has more statistics, from different places, including one that puts the number of positions opening due to attrition as 42,000.  So maybe there is a bigger sliver of hope for surplus librarians after all.  And you know they do peer review and stuff over there, so they’re perhaps a little more authoritative.  Still pretty bleak though, right?

My big question is not, “are we training too many librarians?” but “what are we doing about creating more librarian jobs?”  Are there library leaders out there who are looking for ways to create new positions? Or are they so snowed under with fighting for libraries that losing personnel is a lesser of two evils? Will the last librarians standing continue to work longer and longer hours trying desperately to show their communities that libraries are relevant and valuable?

Here’s my thinking.  Libraries and books are synonymous in the public mind. But as we move beyond the physical to the digital, and as we leave behind the necessity for the corporeal trappings of libraries, what is left behind is librarians. We need to shift our thinking, and the thinking of the public, to the idea that the library is in the librarian.  We know that librarianship is service profession.  That service is where the value of our future libraries lies.  Libraries without librarians will not, in fact, be particularly relevant or valuable. It’s not just the books; Librarians are a public good.  We need to fight for new jobs, and not just cling to the last scraps of funding for decaying warehouses.

Who do you know of that is fighting for librarians?  What are we doing about creating more librarian jobs?

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7 Comments

Filed under Op Ed

7 responses to “Tell Me My Math is Wrong, Because I Don’t Like These Numbers

  1. Alex D

    Is there any data on how many MLISes find gainful employment outside of libraries (e.g., records management, software development, info science, etc.)? If the MLIS becomes less “I can run a library” and more “I can intelligently work with info/people” that may help by sending new graduates to non-library fields.

    • I’m not sure about data on that, but I have seen my own school, SJSU, incorporating more resources on careers outside of libraries (for example on March 21 they presented a colloquim entitled “Expand Your Horizons: New Roles for Information Professionals”). I think this is something that is very responsible and realistic for schools to do.

      However, I got my MLIS because I want to work in a library. I believe in libraries; they are integral part of the society I want to live in. I think accepting a marginal growth rate and not trying to reclaim lost librarian jobs will undermine our future libraries. I’m interested in hearing about people who are actively working to create new jobs for librarians. I think they are out there, but I don’t know about them.

  2. David

    Hi Emily,

    As requested in the title, I can tell you that your math and some of your assumptions are somewhat wrong. ;-)

    Your analysis comparing the BLS projection with MLS grads is mixing apples and oranges. When the BLS projects 7% growth, that’s in net new positions that didn’t exist before, not including replacement hiring (for career changers, retirements, deaths, etc.) or net-zero job creation/destruction (library A eliminates 3 positions, but libraries B, C, & D each added 1 new position: net = 0 new jobs). You get closer to correct once you start including Brett’s attempts at estimating attrition. Retirements

    The cutbacks due to the recession (primarily from late 2008 through early 2010) were devastating, to be sure, and time (and improved state and local tax revenues) and continued advocacy will be needed to restore positions that were lost in public and school libraries. Academic and special libraries, however, held up quite well, overall.

    Based on the number of job ads placed on ALA JobLIST and that I see elsewhere online, the librarian job market has slowly improved over the past 2 years to roughly the old “normal” level of activity seen from 2006 through early 2008 (having fallen to less than half of that level at the bottom, in August/September 2009). I suppose that could be framed as a job market “treading water” in the sense that at the time it seemed like an appropriate level of available jobs to well-suited job seekers for those jobs (better or worse depending on the specialization, location, type of library, etc.). And there’s no doubt that the available jobs will have to now exceed the old “normal” to get back to that equilibrium and get all of that talent that was laid off or graduated during this difficult period into jobs that fit them well. But at least things are headed the right direction.

    If the BLS figures are right, employment of librarians (by which they mean MLS professionals in “library” positions) grew from 158k in 2006 to 159.9k in 2008, then fell to 156.1k in 2010. My guess would be that it was then fairly flat in 2011 and has actually increased some so far in 2012. A key takeaway from the OOH projection: “Later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings.” But no one really knows what will happen in the years to come (based on 2006 data, they projected 4% growth through 2016; 2008-18 they projected 7.8%; and now for 2010-20: 7%).

    You ask, “Who do you know of that is fighting for librarians? What are we doing about creating more librarian jobs?” Take a look at what ALA and numerous other library associations are doing in the areas of advocacy and marketing for libraries, not to mention the grassroots efforts online. But they need you, and people like you. Whether an association or a grassroots campaign, they’re only as good as the people who get involved and make it happen! The only way to “create more librarian jobs” is to persuade people and governments that libraries provide value that is worth investing some of their preciously limited resources (e.g., tax revenues).

    • Thanks!

      You’re right in that I treated replacement positions too cavalierly. However, I think they are often treated too significantly. Many positions,once emptied, are not being filled. Additionally, many of the librarians who would have retired by now are not doing so, especially when their retirement funds are less robust than expected.

      I also think that the pattern of cutbacks is decades old, rather than just in the last few years. Many of the special libraries and academic libraries saw their staff shrink or be consolidated much earlier. And the academic future is a bit scary, at least in California. Community colleges face a $149 million budget deficit, and state colleges will freeze enrollment next spring.

      I also agree that the ALA and library associations have had some great campaigns for libraries (although I would like to see more inclusion of librarians). But what I am trying to uncover, is who are our job creators? Are their library leaders who are making it a point to create new positions in their libraries? There are a lot of great campaigns for the buildings, but where are the campaigns for the people?

      • David

        Emily, it’s difficult to discuss this when you keep flipping between statistics and anecdotes so loosely. I could tell you your math is wrong again, but I think we’ve moved on to creative writing. Things are tough, yes, but some of your assumptions are way over the top. Positions in some organizations are left unfilled and eliminated, but other institutions are creating new ones from scratch (including positions new to the profession, like those in assessment, user experience, e-Learning, etc.). Things change!

        California’s budget situation certainly sounds like a disaster, but take a look at the currently available jobs: on some library job sites I’ve looked at 8% or more of the jobs open right now are in California!

        Buildings and infrastructure have capital campaigns because the bulk of the costs are upfront. You raise the funding, build, and then you get a very visible (hopefully very useful!) “thing” that’s been built and will just need upkeep from then on. Personnel are a whole ‘nother ballgame.

        Positions aren’t created to make a point. This whole concept of “job creators” is an unfortunate side effect of the current political cycle. That’s just not how it works. Positions are created when there’s a need that current staffing can’t meet AND there are available resources. It’s that second part that will be the kicker for a while.

        In the meantime, again I go back to advocacy. Keeping stakeholders — the public, the parents, the administrations, the lawmakers — AWARE of what libraries (as place and as institution/service) and librarians bring to the table is KEY to ensuring that they see the value they get for their investment of those resources. The groundwork laid now can’t necessarily fix anything immediately, but it could pay off in the long run as the economy and budgets improve.

      • Well, I hope you are right. I obviously see the situation very differently.

  3. Dan Robinson

    A library degree is good in many places that are not libraries, but support libraries. The library vendors, such as Bowker, Ebsco, OCLC, Proquest, and the former HW Wilson, etc. all hire(d) librarians. There is always a flow to and from the libraries.

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