Tag Archives: retiring librarians

Researcher’s Corner: Comparing Reference Service in Academic and Public Libraries

What do employers really want?  A lot of this blog deals with the translation between job ad speak and the real needs and wants of hiring managers.  I’m pleased to share the following post with you, because it represents another way of looking at the skills and competencies candidates might wish to cultivate, specifically – What skills do you need to be a good reference librarian?  I also find it pretty fascinating that there are so many similarities between what public and academic libraries want…

(This is a recap of our article “Significantly Different? Reference Services Competencies in Public and Academic Libraries” published in Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 216–23, which won the 2014 Reference Service Press Award, which honors the most outstanding article published in RUSQ. )

Reference is reference – or is it?

It’s a commonly held belief that reference skills needed to be effective are necessarily different in public and academic libraries. However, there has been no research to either confirm or deny that idea. In 2011, we carried out a nationwide study looking at reference library work in academic (Saunders) and public (Jordan) libraries, and compared them for similarities and differences. These data will be of interest to professional librarians who are considering a change in setting and to hiring managers interviewing such candidates, as well as to library students who are in the process of planning their program and choosing a career path. The ideas shared here could also inform revisions or changes to reference courses and related areas of the library science curriculum and as such should be of interest to library science faculty.

We sent out surveys to a randomly selected sampling of 10 academic and 20 public libraries from each state. Every effort was made to identify the reference librarian or reference department manager at each library, but in some cases the invitation was sent to the library director, assistant director, or a public services librarian, asking them to forward it to the appropriate person. This is always surprisingly difficult in public libraries; too many websites have no contact information – leading Professor Jordan to wonder, in every study she does, how their patrons are contacting them. The surveys were essentially identical between the academic and public libraries, with different demographic questions. In addition to basic demographic information, librarians were asked to review a list of thirty-seven competencies in three categories and choose those they consider important. There were three categories of competencies: General, Technology, and Personal. They were then asked to list the three competencies in each list that they believe to be the most important. The list of competencies for the survey was drawn largely from the professional competencies and behavioral guidelines provided by RUSA, and was supplemented by competencies identified in the literature.

The General library skills, those skills traditionally associated with reference work, most frequently selected as important by our respondents were:

Academic Library

  • Search skills (95.6%)
  • Customer service (94.0%)
  • Familiarity with online reference sources (93.4%)
  • Traditional reference interview (75.5%)
  • Familiarity with paper reference sources (67.1%)

Public Library

• Customer service (97.1%)
• Search skills (95.6%)
• Familiarity with online reference sources (92.7%)
• Traditional reference interview (77.8%)
• Familiarity with paper reference sources (70.3%)

There was complete overlap here between the two types of libraries, with only a slight reshuffling of order of importance. These results suggest that the two types of libraries value the same skills, although they might prioritize them differently, and contributes to the finding that librarians who have worked in one type of reference situation should be able to transfer their reference skills to other venues.

We next asked the participants to identify the most important Technology skills from the provided list.

Academic Library

• Online searching (98.4%)
• Software troubleshooting (71.2%)
• Chat/IM (65.8%)
• Social media (65.5%)
• Web design (53.0%)

Public Library

• Online searching (98.2%)
• Software troubleshooting (77.8%)
• Hardware troubleshooting (64.4%)
• Social media (64.1%)
• Chat/IM (38.8%)

The two lists were similar, but somewhat more varied for technology skills. While online searching is equally important to both types of librarians, the numbers of respondents identifying each of the other competencies as important varied more widely: 65.8% of academic librarians identified chat/IM as important, while only 38.8% of public librarians did. Academic librarians selected web design as an important skills, but not public librarians; they selected hardware troubleshooting as important while academic librarians did not. These differences might reflect the difference in services and staffing in the different types of libraries. For instance, academic libraries might be more likely to have dedicated technology staff on campus who can assist with hardware and software troubleshooting, while public librarians might have less on-site tech support. Whatever the reason, the two types of libraries do seem to emphasize some different technology skills.

The third grouping of competencies was the Personal list, the soft skills reference librarians need to function effectively.

Academic Library

• Verbal communication (97.8%)
• Listening (96.6%)
• Approachability (95.3%)
• Comfort with instruction/teaching (92.5%)
• Adaptability/flexibility (91.8%)

Public Library

• Verbal communication (97.8%)
• Listening (97.1%)
• Approachability (94.8%)
• Adaptability/flexibility (88.9%)
• Sense of humor (87.2%)

As with general skills, there was a lot of similarity between the two lists. Regardless of type of library setting, verbal communication, listening, and approachability are crucial for all reference librarians as they will spend much of their day interacting with the public. It is reasonable that academic librarians identified instructional comfort as important so frequently, as it is such a significant part of many academic library jobs. In some academic libraries, reference librarians will spend equal amounts of time providing instruction and staffing more traditional reference service points. Public librarians commented the need for a sense of humor to effectively deal with the fast pace of work on the reference desk, and also to avoid being overwhelmed by the huge diversity of patrons who come into the library for help. Both instruction and sense of humor are important in both types of libraries, but as with certain technology skills, each setting seems to emphasize or prioritize one over the other somewhat.

There was a lot of similarity between academic and public libraries on the competencies they felt were most important for success at the reference desk, so were the least selected competences also comparable?

Academic Public

• Programming 8.5% (Technology)
• Foreign Language 11.9% (General)
• Budgeting 24.8% (General)
• Second Master’s degree 28.2% (General)
• Research/publishing 33.5% (General)

Public Library

• Second Master’s degree 5% (General)
• Research/publishing 12.5% (General)
• Programming 13.1% (Technology)
• Web design 22.4% (Technology)
• Foreign Language 28.3% (General)

It is often taken on faith that academic librarians will need a second Master’s degree to be employed; but this survey suggests that a second Master’s is not considered essential by most academic librarians. The data did suggest, however, that reference librarians in research universities were more likely to consider a second Master’s degree important than those in other types of academic libraries. Another Master’s degree was almost universally viewed as unimportant in public library reference work, as was research and publishing. Interestingly, only a third of academic librarians identified this as important; we did not ask whether respondents were required to publish to obtain tenure in their libraries, but presumably libraries with these requirements would be more likely to value it than libraries where it is optional. The lack of importance given to a foreign language might be surprising.Public librarians are required to deal with the entire spectrum of a community, including those with weak or non-existent English skills, and many academic institutions are seeing increasing numbers of international students whose English language skills can vary widely. This is an interesting area for potential follow-up study.

After looking at all these data, the main conclusion is that the differences between academic and public libraries are not as pronounced as people may have previously thought. The heart of library work is always going to be customer service, and that is emphasized in these soft skills such as communication, listening, and flexibility identified by librarians in both academic and public libraries. Librarians, and library students, hoping to be successful at reference work will do well to focus time and attention specifically on developing these skills to make themselves valuable regardless of the institution. The biggest differences seem to be in the areas of the harder skills, such as research and publication, certain technology skills, and assessment and evaluation. Librarians who aspire to move between academic and public reference desks would benefit from restructuring their resumes and the answers they use in the interview process to emphasize the skills of interest to the hiring libraries.

We thought this was a very interesting study, and hope it put to rest some of the misconceptions about reference work as well as helping to guide some training for good reference work. If your library would like us to come talk to you about this or other studies we have done; or if you would like us to do some other training for you, do not hesitate to contact us!

Laura SaundersLaura Saunders Laura Saunders received her PhD from Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in May 2010.  She holds an M.S.L.I.S from Simmons as well as a B. A. from Boston University in English Literature and Italian.  She worked as a reference librarian and branch manager of the Career Resource Library for Simmons College from 1999 to 2003, where she provided reference and instruction services, as well as participated in collection development, Web page maintenance, and marketing of library services.  While completing her PhD, she worked as an adjunct faculty member.  Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College, teaching in the areas of reference, evaluation of information services, information literacy, and academic libraries. Her first book, Information Literacy as a Student Learning Outcome: The Perspective of Institutional Accreditation was published in June 2011. Her research interests include information literacy, assessment, accreditation, reference services, and the place of libraries in higher education.  She has had articles published in The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Library & Information Science Research, College & Research Libraries, and portal: Libraries and the Academy.  You may also recognize her from the Hiring Librarians post: Researcher’s Corner: Reference Competencies from the Academic Employers’ Perspective.

Mary Wilkins Jordan (425x640)Mary Wilkins Jordan came to Simmons College GSLIS from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she earned a PhD.

Prior to entering academia, Jordan worked in public libraries as a Director and administrator.

Her research and consulting work now focuses on ways to help libraries to function better and to serve their communities more effectively. She teaches Management and also Evaluation classes, as well as Public Libraries, Reference, and the Internship class, all with a focus on helping students acquire the skills they need to be successful in their professional careers.

Jordan also has a J.D. from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and worked as an attorney before entering the library field.


Filed under Academic, Public, Researcher's Corner

Library Jobs Math

Did you read the recent Wall Street Journal article that said we would soon be experiencing a shortage of librarians and sea captains?

Does that math sound right to you?

Library Journal’s 2012 placements and salary survey shows in that year, 6,184 people graduated. If that number remains constant (more about this later), that’s 61,840 new librarians over the ten years from 2012-2022.

Will this be enough to fulfill the imminent shortage???

The statistical chart entitled Employed persons by detailed occupation and age, 2013 annual averages (data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey) gives the total number of librarians in the US as 194,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts a growth rate for librarian jobs of 7%, from 2012-2022, slower than the total for all occupations, which they predict as 11% (more about this later too). 194,000 times 7% is 13,580. So, the BLS’ numbers mean that approximately 13,580 new librarian jobs will be created over the next ten years.

Let’s subtract that from the 61,840 new graduates. There are still 48,260 graduates who don’t have jobs! How is that a shortage?

Oh wait, those retiring librarians!

That same statistical chart, Employed persons by detailed occupation and age, 2013 annual averages, shows us the ages of librarians!

53,000 librarians are between the ages of 55 and 64, so we would expect those librarians to retire over the next ten years, right?

Well, the chart also shows us that 17,000 are 65 years and older, so it looks like some of them …won’t.

Let’s say that within the next ten years, ALL of the librarians 65 years or older retire. 48,260 (the number of new grads remaining after all those new jobs are filled) – 17,000 (those 65+ year old librarians) leaves…

31,260 new grads still looking for work.

How many of those 55-64 year olds will retire in the next ten years? There are 53,000 of them.

  • 1 possibility: Say they all retire. Then yes, we will be short by (53,000-31,260) 21,620 librarians needed!
  • possibility 2: Say all but 17,000 retire. Then yes, we will be short, but by ((53,000-17,000)-31,260) only 4,740 librarians needed.
  • possibility 3: Say that those librarians are never ever going to retire because they love their jobs/have had their retirement funds decimated by the economy/some other reason. Then we will have a surplus of 31, 260 librarians!

It’s hard to know what this group of librarians aged 55 to 64 years will do.* There are some differences between a librarian of 55 years and a librarian of 64 years. If most of the 53,000 librarians are 55, then maybe they won’t be retiring in ten years. Maybe it’ll be more like 20 years. And do you know any 74 year old librarians who show no signs of slowing down? I know of at least two. I think some librarians will just go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ….

And there are three more kickers.

1. Library school enrollment is increasing, rather than staying stable, so if this trend continues it seems likely that the number of grads (e.g. job hunting librarians) will also increase each year. Meaning more or many more than just 61,840 hungry new librarians are being created.**

2. Although the statistical chart entitled Employed persons by detailed occupation and age, 2013 annual averages gives the number of librarians as 194,000, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook gives the number as 148,400. Granted, the former is 2013 and the latter is 2012, but to me that discrepancy indicates some variance in the counts, rather than an increase of nearly 50,000 librarians. So there may be in reality be even fewer than 194,000 librarians.

3. I am skeptical of the predicted 7% growth in jobs. The AFL-CIO provides statistical support for my skepticism:

From 2007 through 2013, library employment among librarians and library technicians and assistants shrank from 380,000 to 320,000.

Anecdotally, I look around at library workrooms with empty desks. I’ve spoken to veteran librarians who describe a slow attrition of positions, as automation and the economy visit libraries, and those who leave or retire are not replaced (or are replaced by part time or hourly employees).  Are we really growing?  It looks like we’re shrinking.

I’m sorry that this post is such a bummer.

But frankly, I think we need to be very honest with each other, and with the library school students that are going into debt right now in order to reach for the Impossible Librarian Dream.

The future librarian shortage does not exist.Not unless we can stop pumping out grads and start creating new librarian jobs.


*The potentially retiring librarians are explored in a much more sophisticated fashion in Planning for 2015: The Recent History and Future Supply of Librarians, A Report Prepared for the American Library Association Senior Management and Executive Board to inform its 2015 Strategic Planning Activities. Please note though, that this report was written five years ago, using data that is now almost ten years old. So, not totally up to date.

** I learned about this from Liz Lieutenant, who also has some good posts about library jobs numbers on her blog, for example this one, which illustrates library jobs math much more elegantly, by simply juxtaposing two quotes:

“The profession may lose an average of 2,820 librarians each year to retirement.”
ALA Office for Research & Statistics “Planning for 2015: The Recent History and Future Supply of Librarians” (2009) pg. 39

6,451 ALA-accredited degrees were awarded in 2013*
ALA Committee on Accreditation “Trend Data on Program Performance” (2013) *Note: Canadian programs removed.


Filed under Op Ed

Researcher’s Corner: Who’s Retiring From Library Work, and Who Isn’t ?

The myth of the tidal wave of retiring librarians is pervasive and persistent (for example, see this recent Public Libraries article about mentoring Gen-X librarians). But is there a grain of truth?  I’m happy to introduce this piece by Eric C. Shoaf, in which he takes a deeper look at what exactly is happening with those boomer librarians, what this means for recent graduates, and how it affects the profession as a whole.

During 2012, Nathan Long and myself conducted a study on the retirement plans for library workers. Nathan, currently Head of Systems at Francis Marion University Library, and I had known each other for several years and wanted to collaborate on a research project. At first we looked at several aspects of librarianship where we had mutual interest: skills training to learn new technology, career arc choices related to family and work/life balance, effects of a mature workforce in libraries, and impacts on early career librarians entering the field. There were a couple of false starts in the study as we tried to hone the direction. Especially when looking at skills and experience of early career librarians, we weren’t sure we could get the data needed for analysis. Then Nathan found the Colorado study that ended up being the catalyst for our own survey (Retirement, Retention, and Recruitment: The Future of Librarianship in Colorado [2004]) because it had data from a decade earlier that we could compare, and also because we could use some of the same questions they used in order to collect comparable data in our own survey.

Because of our experiences attending succession planning programs at ALA, reading the library literature, and discussions about imminent retirements expected in the library profession, we decided to focus on whether or not it could be determined whether there is about to be a large-scale retirement boom among library workers. This is important for a number of reasons. There is evidence that new MLS graduates have difficulty finding jobs, and that as libraries currently do have job openings, whether due to retirement or not, they sometimes look for different skill sets to fill evolving needs. Many of these new skill sets are found outside those possessed by traditional library workers. It seems that we have been hearing anecdotally about impending library retirements since the 1990s. Given that Nathan and I already had data from the Colorado study that was almost ten years old, and that the data showed that 20% of the 1,400+ respondents intended to retire in the next five years, which would have been around the time of the economic downturn in 2008-09, we wanted to try and determine on a national level library worker retirement intentions in 2012. And since the Colorado survey had happened well before the economic downturn, one of the things we were interested in was how much the downturn might have affected library worker retirement plans because of the pervasive negative effects it had on savings and retirement funds, and long-term concerns generally about the viability of the economy.

The literature review we conducted focused on recent reports in all types of media, many outside library literature and validated our idea that library workers may not be planning to retire as expected. There were a number of articles about heavy retirement fund loses from the economic downturn and predictions this would affect all segments of society and all businesses and institutions, including higher education, as well as tax-funded spending that includes public libraries. Some of the warnings were rather dire about the ‘baby boomer’ population’s lack of financial readiness for retirement. At least one report cited mature workers who said they did not think they would ever be able to stop working and retire. This was, for us, an indication that there had been a fundamental change because of the economic climate, or because the reality of retirement financing becomes clearer as retirement age approaches, or both.

Our survey was much shorter than the one used for the Colorado study. Knowing that people receive any number of survey queries every month, we wanted to use an online survey that would be relatively easy and painless to fill out. Hence, ours had only thirteen questions and all were geared to uncovering data about retirement planning as well as some demographic information. This is probably why our response rate was so high (4,400+ responses to the survey). In fact, we were quite overwhelmed with the response. On the other hand, we probably spent more time than most who circulate these sorts of surveys, actively publicizing it in a variety of venues and working to identify and notify state library associations in all regions of the country. I number of people sent personal email asking to be notified of the results of the survey. Certainly, it was all rather gratifying and made us feel that we had pinpointed an issue that a lot of library workers are thinking about.

Neither were we surprised by the results. Nearly half of the survey respondents indicated that the latest economic downturn had affected their career plans and would lead them to retire later and/or stay in their current job, which is a significant increase over the eleven percent from the 2003 Colorado survey. The strength and duration of the 2008-09 economic downturn has both surprised and deflated workers’ retirement accounts and their plans including library workers. The survey shows that library workers not yet close to retirement age are planning to work longer. At the end of our article we ask the question, Is sixty-five the new fifty? We included that because one of the highlighted trends of the baby-boomer generation has been a focus on living longer, refusing to “get old” in demonstrable ways, and we think that will extend to delayed retirement among this group as well. On the other hand, nearly 40% of the survey respondents indicated that the economic downturn had no effect on their career plans.

What the results of the 2012 survey mean for the library profession and for job seekers is not completely clear, and the news may not be all bad. Technology and other changes have already been driving the need for new skill sets in new types of library jobs for almost a decade. This is not expected to change. A maturing workforce that is not ready to retire is likely to reduce the number of new positions that are available, but it may not be appreciably different from the present. According to some past predictions, those library workers were to have already retired by now, but didn’t, and there are still jobs available. What is more likely to change is the type and character of jobs available, with new skill sets continuing to be needed in evolving library technological environments. Expect more mature workers to seek part-time employment as an option to full retirement. For two former full-time jobs that become part-time, one new full-time job can be created. Job seekers should also remember that despite national surveys, purported trends, and a sometimes bleak economic outlook, job offers happen at the local level, and it only takes one to secure employment.

The full article on our survey and analysis was published as Shoaf, Eric C. and Flowers, Nathan. “Library Worker Retirement Plans: A Large Survey Reveals New Findings” Library Leadership & Management (Vol. 27 no. 4) Fall 2013, and accessible here http://works.bepress.com/eric_shoaf/8/ .

Eric ShoafEric C. Shoaf, Clemson University Libraries

Eric C. Shoaf received his BA from Duke University, the MLS from North Carolina Central University, and an MPA from the University of Rhode Island.  He is currently Associate Dean of Libraries at Clemson University.

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Filed under Researcher's Corner