How’s the Math Now? Looking at the lack of library job growth over the last decade

Back when I was first writing Hiring Librarians, and a very early career librarian myself, I had some anxiety that there wouldn’t be enough librarian  jobs for all the people who wanted librarian jobs. I wrote a couple posts, Tell Me My Math is Wrong, Because I Don’t Like These Numbers in 2012 and Library Jobs Math in 2014, exploring some of the available statistics. It didn’t look good to me – it looked like we were turning out too many graduates for the rate of growth, even considering that the boomers were supposed to be retiring and creating a librarian shortage (there was also supposed to be a shortage of sea captains, according to Forbes).

Now that I’m back at the blog and it’s about ten years later, I’m curious how things have shaken out. So, I thought I’d take a look at some of the statistical sources to see what’s changed. 

The change in predicted rate of growth.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides some key information for potential future librarians in its Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), and it is the source I used for predicted job growth. The predicted growth rate for librarians and Library Media Specialists was 7% for 2012-2022, compared to growth rate for all occupations predicted at 11%. 

Today, the growth rate for librarians and library media specialists is predicted to be 6% for 2021-2031.1 The growth of the job market for all occupations is expected to be 5%. So our current growth rate is lower than was previously predicted, but closer to the total for all occupations (and in proportion to the total for all occupations, the rate of growth has shrunk less).

Was the 7% growth prediction accurate? 

It doesn’t seem like it. 

In 2014 I reported on the number of librarians listed on the statistical chart entitled Employed persons by detailed occupation and age, 2013 annual averages (data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey). The number was 194,000. 

In 2021 the chart Employed persons by detailed occupation and age, 2021 annual averages (data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey) lists the number of librarians as 158,000.

194,000 minus today’s number of 158,000 equals 36,000 fewer librarian jobs.

That’s a loss of 18.55%.

Before we all freak out, let’s look at another source to compare. The BLS’ OOH actually has different numbers. When I went looking to find out why these numbers differ, an ALA generated PDF told me that:

“The data represented in the OOH comes from the Occupational Employment Statistics Survey. The semiannual mail survey of 200,000 employers gathers employment estimates and wages. The Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (CPS) provide the number of librarians, including age ranges, as self-reported in interviews of a sample of 60,000 households in 754 sample areas.”

Thanks, ALA!

The OOH tells us that in 2021 there were 138,400 librarians and library media specialists. In 2012 the OOH told us there were 148,400. So that is only 10,000 fewer librarians, and a loss of 6.7%. Not as bad. Note I’m also not measuring the same time period – this is all pretty rough. 

Let’s look at another source. The AFL-CIO put together a 2021 Fact Sheet entitled Library Professionals: Facts & Figures. Using data from the  U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Survey Microdata. 2020, they say

“Cumulative employment among librarians, library technicians, and library assistants dropped severely in 2020 to 264,270, down from 308,000 in 2019. This is most likely due to the widespread health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the vast majority of libraries to close for at least part of the year. Before the pandemic, employment of professionals had been gradually declining after hitting a peak of 394,900 in 2006.”

So yeah. We most likely did not grow 7% since I last looked in 2014.

Ok, are we still graduating too many librarians?

Data USA tells us that in 2020 there were 4,965 Masters degrees awarded in Library Science in the US. Library Journal also has some numbers. Their current Placements & Salaries survey used data from 34 of the 58 US-based ALA accredited library schools and they “reported that LIS master’s degrees were bestowed on 4,931 graduates, a 9 percent increase over 2020.”

In my 2014 post I used the Library Journal number, which was 6,184. I’m unable to backtrack to their survey methods for that year (2013), but it looks like they gathered data from 41 schools. So, maybe we’re getting fewer graduates or maybe it’s just that they looked at fewer schools in 2021. It’s hard to compare.

The Data USA site does tell us that the number of library degrees awarded (all degrees, not just Masters) is declining by 5%. It is unclear what time period they are referencing. This number apparently “includes STEM majors.”

So the number of librarians has declined, but rate we are minting new grads is also declining…

Let’s do a brief dive into that number of librarians leaving the profession. 

I’ll just take a look at the extensive research that’s been done there.

Ok, not a lot has been done. I looked through the LISTA database and couldn’t find much. Then I checked my work on Twitter and had some good conversations about why this is a difficult subject to research, possible places to draw numbers from, anecdotal evidence, and a skosh of actual research. 

What about those boomers? Are they retiring?

We can do some speculation there. In 2014 I looked at the number of librarians who were aged 55-64, the number of librarians who were 65 and older and then mathed out a few possible scenarios in terms of number of retirements. 

The Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population survey breaks down librarians by age group. The current survey (2021) tells us 20,000 librarians are in the age group 65 years and older (12.6% of total) and an additional 40,000 are between the ages of 55 and 64 (25.3% of total).2

In 2013 there were 194,000 librarians reported in this survey; 17,000 were 65 and older (8.76% of total) and 53,000 librarians were between the ages of 55 and 64 (27.3% of total).

There are 10,000 fewer librarians aged 55 and over than there were when we last checked.

So, some of those boomers did retire! Or maybe they left for high paying corporate jobs, who can say?

This is kind of interesting. Let’s look at both the 55 to 64 age group and the 65 and over age group in aggregate. In 2013, 36% of librarians were 55 and over. In the current survey, 37.9% are 55 and older.

So, given that there are 10,000 fewer librarians over 55, but they represent a slightly higher percent of the total librarian population, could it be that those retiring boomers were not replaced?

In Conclusion

I look at the number of 36,000 fewer librarians and I am alarmed.

But, the math here is pretty fuzzy. I am not a statistician or a data wonk, so please feel free to tell me what I’ve muddled up.

Considering causes, we certainly lost librarians due to COVID related reasons, or great resignation related reasons, or any number of the-last-few-years-have-really-made-folks-make-drastic-changes reasons. And those positions might be replaced when things are more stable. I know the position I left at a public library in January 2021 has only now, in October 2022, been filled. PLA’s recent Public Library Staff and Diversity Report notes that “More than a quarter (27%) of all public libraries report they lost staff positions in the prior 12 months. City (32.7%) and suburban (33.2%) libraries were slightly more likely to have lost staff positions than town/rural libraries (21.1%).” This seems to indicate that a significant portion of the loss I’m seeing over the last 8 years may have been concentrated in the last 12 months. 

So maybe there’s a reason to temper my alarm?

There’s another aspect of the MLIS degree holders versus jobs equation that I don’t think I’ve paid enough attention to: some people graduate with their MLIS never intending to work in a library. Data USA tells us that only 35.5% of Library Science graduates go on to work as Librarians and Media Collection Specialists, although this number does include undergraduate degrees and PhDs. So the loss of librarians doesn’t necessarily translate into disappointed, unemployed library grads. 

There’s a lot that’s unclear for me in the forecast. While I do think that the BLS’ prediction of 7% growth the last decade turned out to be bunkum, they are professionals, and they might end up being right about the next decade.  

Footnotes

  1. Note that if you remove Library Media Specialists and look instead at job growth for Librarians, Curators and Archivists, the growth rate is only 4%.
  2. Compare with all occupations: 6.6% are 65 years and older and 16.9% are between the ages of 55 and 64.

3 Comments

Filed under Op Ed

3 responses to “How’s the Math Now? Looking at the lack of library job growth over the last decade

  1. Victoria

    Thank you for putting this together! I am not a data person either! I am a current MLIS grad student and something I’ve experienced in my classes is that many other students are already working in libraries or archives. They just can’t go beyond where they are in the field without the master’s degree. So I am not sure how that would factor into the labor statistics, if they are including librarians, library technicians, and library assistants.

    I appreciate that you shared the experience that it took your previous employers from Jan, 2021 to October, 2022 to fill your position. I have a friend who works at a state library & they have taken over a year to hire for some positions because they seem to be a stuck in a loop where everyone is too busy doing two or three jobs to be able to find the time to focus on hiring, so everyone just continues to be overworked & not replacing staff. My sister had a similar experience managing a small (non-library) non-profit. I know hiring takes a lot of time & energy, but as a job seeker, I’m only a little bit sympathetic!

    At a conference a few weeks, I heard some antidotes that some libraries are offering a job to their top candidate & then the candidate is saying “Sorry, I just accepted another job yesterday.” So then the process goes on a bit longer. I have not had that experience in my search for part-time jobs & internships, but maybe next summer I will be turning down jobs left & right! (kidding! sort of!)

    Like

    • I’m glad you found it useful! The BLS statistics are librarians only, but the AFL-CIO includes the broader range of library staff, as does (I believe) the public library survey mentioned in conclusion. The BLS does track employment for library technicians, just in a separate category – I was trying to simplify by just looking at librarians.
      I hope you will be turning down jobs right and left next summer, best of luck to you in your search!

      Like

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