This post presents research by Kelli Hansen. As in Eamon Tewell’s research on jobs for Academic librarians, you’ll see that she finds that entry-level positions are scarce. However, she also identifies characteristics and skills that candidates can cultivate to improve their chances, and I’m intrigued by her findings about the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of these jobs. I hope you enjoy this post, because I’m very proud to be able to share it with you.
This project started as a student paper in Michael Laird’s class on Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Texas at Austin in spring 2009. Some of our readings raised questions about employers’ expectations of new special collections librarians. I was preparing to start my job search at the time, and I wondered whether some of the answers could be found in position advertisements. Here’s what I found out.
For the purposes of this study, I was only interested in job ads for entry-level special collections librarians. It was difficult to define entry-level because very few job advertisements suitable for recent graduates openly represent themselves as such. Unexpectedly, it was also difficult to define special collections and even librarian.
In the end, my criteria for including advertisements were as follows:
- One year of experience or less; or, length of experience not specified; and
- No supervisory duties over other professionals; and
- Position assigned to special collections or rare books (with at least 50% of job duties in one of those areas); and
- Title and requirements that reflect training in librarianship (as opposed to training in archives, conservation, museum studies, or digitization).
I did not keep track of a total population of job advertisements because I did not intend to estimate the percentage of jobs available to new graduates. I only wanted a snapshot of the skills and experience employers were looking for in entry-level applicants, and the responsibilities and environments recent graduates could expect in their first positions.
I had a hard time locating advertisements, primarily because of the ephemeral nature of online postings. Eighty-eight position announcements, culled from various print and electronic sources from 2004 to 2009, fit my criteria and were included in the study.
After I collected all of the advertisements, I broke down statistics for features like salary, professional status, geographic location, and institution type. I found that the largest number of positions was in the Northeast. The median salary was $40,000, and academic or research environments made up the overwhelming majority. Over 75 percent required a single master’s degree – either the MLS or a master’s degree in a subject area. About 30 percent of the advertisements specified that another advanced degree, in addition to the library degree, was preferred. Almost half of the advertisements required the candidate to have some experience (of an unspecified amount), and over seventy percent of the advertisements stated that experience of some sort was preferred.
In order to measure more subjective requirements, I also did some basic text analysis on the qualifications sections for common keywords, which I classified into broad categories based on the white paper Competencies for Special Collections Professionals. In the qualifications, keywords varied widely. The most common single keywords were history, cataloging, and technology. The competencies with the highest frequencies were Teaching and Research and Public Service, followed closely by Cataloging and Processing and Information Technology.
When I analyzed the duties sections of the advertisements in the same way, there was much less variation. The most frequent single keywords for duties were reference and research. The category with the highest frequency was Teaching and Research, appearing in 73 percent of advertisements. However, the following categories all appeared in 72 percent of the advertisements: Management and Administration, Promotion and Outreach, and Public Service. Cataloging and Processing was represented in 70 percent of advertisements.
To summarize very briefly, I reached some of the following conclusions:
- Entry-level positions in special collections are scarce, and they aren’t so entry-level. Like many library jobs, there’s an overwhelming preference for candidates with some prior experience. Nearly a third of hiring institutions also prefer candidates with additional graduate education. These facts indicate a very competitive job market.
- The job advertisements reflect overlap among libraries, archives, and museums. There has been much talk about library-archive-museum convergence over the past decade, and the job announcements confirm that idea. It may be useful for job seekers to cultivate skills and experience in all three areas.
- Institutions seem to be looking for candidates who are both generalists and specialists. Most of the skills mentioned in the advertisements – reference, research support, instruction, cataloging – apply to librarians of all stripes. However, the position responsibilities and requirements suggest that aspiring special collections librarians need to combine comprehensive library skills with specialized knowledge of subject areas and materials.
The full version of this research was published in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage in September 2011. I only touched on the surface with this article, and there’s still a lot to find out about hiring and training librarians in this field. Feel free to contact me with any comments or questions.
Kelli Bruce Hansen earned her MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin in December 2010, and her MA in art history from the University of Missouri in 2003. Currently, she’s a librarian in the department of Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri Libraries, where she focuses on instruction, outreach, and reference. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.