[Series] Hack ALA: What’s a professional organization to do?

The debate over the current role MLIS programs can play in the library industry keeps popping up. For a recent example, check out Will Manley’s blog, Will Unwound, which asks some important questions: Are too many graduates being spit out into the shrinking job pool? Are graduate programs, in their ivory towers, isolating themselves from current realities? Are online programs supporting or corroding the industry? Is an MLIS just a union-card, only necessary to further our careers?

Here’s another question to add to the mix: in terms of MLIS programs, should the American Library Association step in and make a gesture to try and calm the storm this recession has stirred up?

While you think about that, here’s a precedent to my question:

In November 2009, the American Bar Association released the following report: “ABA Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crises on the Profession and Legal Needs.” It was a warning of sorts, recognizing that the cost of a law degree was going up while the average salary was going down – and it shared some stark numbers (more on that later). While the ABA did not want to dissuade any potential students from entering law school, it did want to send a clear message that “all law school applicants should have a clear picture in the debt that they will incur and the expected earning power of graduates from the schools to which they were applying.” They were looking out for future lawyers.

When I first saw this report I found it interesting that a professional association would publish such an honest assessment of the current employment situation. So I posted it on my blog, asking if the American Library Association should do the same. With ALA 2011 right around the corner, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reexamine this question.

In researching employment statistics for the Library Industry, I turned to Library Journal’s Placement and Salary Survey 2010, which seemed to offer up the most current information – looking at job trends from 2008-2009. Here are some of the facts that I pulled from this report:

  • In 2009, there appeared to be a decrease in the number of students graduating – about 7%. The report does acknowledge that this could be from less students applying, or from students not being able to complete programs due to a lack of available financial assistance.
  • That said, library schools reported receiving an average of 22% fewer job announcements, with the average job search of new graduates lasting 4.5-months
  • The national average salary is up 1.5% ($42,215 – up from $41,579) and full time placements are up 3.1%. But so are part time placements (4.5%), temporary placements (2.8%) and non-professional placements (5.9%) and unemployment (7.3%)
  • Speaking of part time employment, of those who are employed part-time, 34% of them have accepted two part time jobs after graduation.
  • Academic libraries had a drop in job placements: from 31% in 2008 to 20% in 2009, and public libraries had 8.4% fewer placements and an average salary increase of less than 1%.

To summarize, while there may be fewer graduates, there are even less jobs being posted, creating a four-five month long job search, often resulting in graduates accepting multiple part-time and temporary positions to make enough money to both survive and to start to pay off loans.

Now, let’s look at what was the state of law schools was when the ABA released it’s report. In 2008 the average student was taking out between $70,000 and $100,000 to pay for graduate school, and upon graduation the majority of students were making less than the national average salary for lawyers (about $65,000), when in previous years students were being picked up by private firms and offered annual salaries $160,000. Apparently the private firms aren’t hiring like they used to.

While I think we should look a bit deeper at the current state of recent MLIS graduates before we make a strict comparison between the two professional groups, I do think there are some correlations that can be drawn from these numbers. Granted, the library student may not be taking out quite as much in loans (depending on the program, of course) but it also has never been common for first-year librarians to make six figures. And, as the Library Journal report shows while there are jobs, they are harder and harder to come by and students are having to get creative in making ends meet.

So, should the ALA follow the ABA and release a report or statement warning individuals thinking about entering in the report? Personally, I think it would be the polite thing to do. But we would love to hear your thoughts…

Whether it does or does not issue a warning, there is still hope. The report does point out niches within the industry that are hiring at a faster rate than most, namely archives and digital libraries. And many students are finding gainful employment outside of the library industry, finding novel ways of putting their library schools skills to work in non-traditional roles.

And, if you are a job hunter and heading to New Orleans for the annual conference, there are some resources at your disposal. Before going, check Micah’s list of recommended sessions, Annie and Lauren’s conversation on networking, and when you there stop by the Joblist placement center. Or, if you aren’t attending the conference (like me), Nicole put together a great list of ways to follow with out even being there.

Again, this is an important issue, for new and veteran librarians alike. Please share your thoughts with us so we can keep the conversation going!

Categories: Hack ALA

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30 replies

  1. Thanks Turner for this fabulous post. When I saw Library Journal’s recent Placement and Salary Survey, it made my heart flutter. I do think that prospective students need to heed the warning(s) or check the trends in library [for certain] positions if they have their hearts set on one particular niche. The statistics speak for themselves. My interpretation from the numbers show that future library/information professionals need to be well versed in technical skills (i.e. beyond basic website design), teaching skills, and having the ability to demonstrate how valuable their research skills. Thanks again for sharing helpful tools for students who are unable to attend this year’s Annual ALA events. Kuddos and keep up the great work Turner.


  2. This is an excellent post! I think one of the main differences between the law profession and the library profession is that a lot of people thinking about law school mistakenly think it’s a way to get rich — it’s definitely still got the patina of a high-paying professions. I don’t know anyone who went to library school thinking they would make a ton of money. So, perhaps the warning is more apt for law school prospectives?

    I do absolutely think ALA should perhaps warn people that some of the myths surrounding the profession (namely that “everyone is on the brink of retirement” and “more jobs will open up soon because it’s an aging field with no new blood”) are just false.


    • You’re right, people do associate being a lawyer with making a lot of money. I do feel that some people go to library not to make a lot of money. but because they think it is an easier profession to break into. And as you say, a lot of the myths that are out there – such as the graying of the profession, just aren’t true. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    • I was told to put the “graying” myths onto my LIS school’s website but put my foot down and refused to do it. While I did thorough research before applying to grad school, not everyone has the time and luxury to do so and I refused to be a part of the myth making process.


  3. One thing that concerns me is the fact that the ALA Salary Surveys that are released every year (or couple of years) are not free and easy to access. http://ala-apa.org/improving-salariesstatus/resources/ala-apa-librarian-and-library-worker-salary-surveys/ I appreciate Library Journal’s survey, but I really wish ALA would provide this resource for a more in-depth look into librarianship (for students and librarians who are looking to advance their careers).


        • Thanks for sharing the link, Micah! It looks like that this office investigates issues “external” issues – how libraries and librarians are serving patrons – rather than “internal” issues – how the ALA is serving the industry. I agree, maybe we need to make louder demands to get the data we need, especially in terms of MLIS education and employment opportunities.


  4. As one of the aforementioned “veterans” (wow that makes me feel old) , it’s something with which I definitely struggle. I don’t want to scare people away, since it’s a career I love, but the gap between MLIS and job can be a scary one. What do you & other current students think we “oldsters” should be doing?


    • I wonder how the gap compares to other, similar professions right now. Are people in other jobs that are dependent on public support experiencing similar job-search times? Maybe I’ve been jaded by my search in this terrible market, but 4.5 months from not searching for a job to finding one doesn’t seem THAT ridiculous. Especially considering that the hiring process at a lot of public or academic libraries takes a few months in and of itself…

      I’d be curious to see statistics from other fields, too!


    • Be honest! When I talk to folks who are thinking about library school I tell them how much I love it AND what the job market is like. Especially here in Portland, where job searches stretch on for 13-15 months. I feel that it is the fair thing to do. And it’s not an impossible career to break in to, people people should be warned about how much networking and volunteering and general hustling it is going to take! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jessica!


    • I think one of the most important things “veteran” librarians can do is keep telling the truth. Each librarian has his or her own experience and therefore truth, but students need to hear from all areas of the spectrum in order to mold a “true” picture of the career. I’m so very very grateful for many of the veteran librarian bloggers out there and my personal mentors who have guided me to and now through this career.


    • I’ve always appreciated the veteran librarians who take the time to talk to me about the profession and offer some kind of career mentoring. I know not everybody has time for this, but it’s been so helpful for me and such a morale boost to hear that I’m not the only person who has struggled to find/keep a job I love. And I second the importance of honesty, yes there are a lot of current challenges and changes coming to the profession, but change can also create opportunity and foster innovation and revitalization. Some librarians I’ve talked to seem too depressed or pessimistic about the future to bother talking to me or are worried to leading me to a sense of false hope, but for those that aren’t like that I appreciate so much.


  5. I’m very proud of this article today. Turner really gets at the heart of what a professional organization is supposed to do – serve its members. Its worth holding ALA responsible to that.

    Oh and, JP is right.


  6. Turner, this is a wonderful post. I think we all appreciate this level of honesty, although it’s hard to hear sometimes. When I was applying for library school, one of my applications required me to interview a librarian who was working in a position that I wanted. I interviewed a librarian who was willing to talk to me, but she also very frankly told me that getting a job would be tough. She said that I would be up against people with years of experience and PhD’s. At the time, I was puzzled by her telling me all of that, it was discouraging, but now I see that she was trying to do me a favor, by giving me a reality check. Not like it stopped me from going to school.

    This post also reminded me of this interesting article about Higher Education being the next bubble to burst. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I graduated college, I had a hard time finding full-time employment (hello humanities major!). I turned to graduate school to give me better skills and hopefully make me more marketable.


    • Thanks for sharing the link! Moving forward past this recession, it seems that America’s economy is going to require a well educated populace. With everyone needing a higher education degree to succeed, our graduate degrees are going to give us the opportunity to gain some pretty important skills that will set us apart.


  7. I feel a little bit pouty about archives and digital libraries being a fast growing but niche position in librarianship when I put in at least 30 applications geared towards those two areas, but I have to remind myself that those are very specialized fields where a brand new librarian will have a hard time competing against someone with 20 years of data preservation experience.


  8. Great article, and absolutely relevant points. I’m glad the ALA at least acknowledges growth areas, even if they aren’t in “proper libraries.”

    Personally I think the ALA is absolutely negligent by not issuing that kind of report. The truth hurts, but we aren’t suffering a great lack of school applicants, and I think the disillusionment students experience when they *do* find out the difficulties (often after the school’s administration weaved tales of jobs just waiting for graduates) is not good for the morale OR the reputation of the profession.

    (I’m currently reading The MLS Project by Swigger and I’m absolutely shocked at how much the current debate — salary woes and everything — mirrors the discussion of the 40s that gave rise to the MLS.)


  9. I have controversial feelings about about the graying of library science and the labor force in general. I don’t really want to share them as they will alienate a lot of people.
    However, I think library schools should be up front, and how up front, and how much placement work they do for their students should be something that is taken into account as part of the ALA accreditation.


  10. I think that we as students or students-to-be are responsible for making our own decisions about library school, but knowledge is power, and the more info ALA can provide, the better. Also, I enjoyed reading @Annie Pho’s experience in the comment above about interviewing a librarian for one of her library school applications. I think that other library schools would be wise to follow that lead!

    I wonder if the National Education Association has addressed the teaching job shortages with its student teachers. Anyone know?


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