I got an email from a reader. I will quote it in its entirety.
Instead of addressing issues such as library videos and the views of a contrarian librarian your fellow librarian blogger colleagues like to
ridicule, please the address the issue of the high unemployment rate among librarians and recently graduated MLIS students . Unemployment is the elephant in the room in the library world while the unimportant issues as the ones I mentioned get the most attention. It is librarians like you who are “telling us nothing”.
First, there’s a very simple explanation as to why library videos and a contrarian librarian get more blog space as opposed to the the issue of high unemployment within the profession: the former is a bit more interesting than the latter. In fact, I would say that the latter is actually a boring topic. It is boring in the unique way that mathematical facts can be boring for it boils down to an elementary matter of supply and demand. From my own calculations, there are almost twice as many people going into the field than are coming out of it (though my estimation of retirements does not include people who are killed or otherwise dying, most likely face down somewhere in the stacks, their hands latched in a death grip onto their book cart). In other words, if you ate two apples a day and everyday I bring you five apples, you are never going to be able to eat all the apples. Too many librarians, too few positions; the supply outweighs the demand.
Why is demand so low? The short off-the-cuff answer is that librarians are not retiring at the rate predicted about a decade ago (more on that farce in a moment) and that library budgets for all types (special, school, academic, public) have been generally cut or eliminated. As to the retirement question, any one of these embedded links should help you out in answering that question (and here’s the one to the 1999 ALA study suggesting the need for heavy recruitment). For whatever reason, ten years later, librarians are not retiring in the numbers that were forecast. And even if a librarian retires, there is no guarantee that their position will be filled.
This leads us to the second point about library budgets of all sizes and types. Budgets, on the whole, are down. There are some bright spots for library budgets, but overall, it’s not a great scene. School librarians are being cut left and right so as to maintain continued smaller teacher:student ratios. Since they are sometimes classified as administration, their budget line is seen as an easy place to find savings in a school budget. California is the latest state to get creamed by their governor in terms of public library spending; I can think of other states like Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Washington, and my own New Jersey that waged massive campaigns for the restoration of library spending. Some got the money back and maintained their status quo, others didn’t and either had layoffs or closings. I don’t think you could swing a cat online and not hear a story about the library being understaffed with no prospect for additional hiring. In other words, we are “doing less with less”.
Now, the other question: why is supply so high? In addition to the aforementioned layoffs and closings, graduate schools continue to churn out graduates at a rate that is indifferent to the status of the market. Since the schools get paid whether or not a student finds a job, there really isn’t a downside or a reason to slow down the MLS degree assembly line. (It should be noted that in the employment surveys that US News & World Report sends out it does not denote whether graduates are working in their field or not; it only indicates if they are employed or not. In other words, Starbucks counts just as much as working in a library.) While some may hold it against the programs to continue to expand their class sizes or recruit under the ‘graying profession’ pretense, these departments are in the business of putting butts into seats (either in real life or online) and to justify their continued existence to the college or university president. As the federal government will continue to offer loans to people to get their MLS degrees, the business end of these institutions of higher learning are satisfied. Besides, is it up to the schools to tell their prospective students that they can’t be a librarian? This is America, after all; the land of opportunity.
So, to recap: as it stand currently, the profession cannot find places for everyone who graduates, and therefore the supply remains woefully higher than the demand. But, even after all these fancy words, I’m guessing my reader knew these things already. The real essence of the question presented in their email is what can be done about it. So, what can be done?
There’s a great exchange early on in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Nucky Thompson, the corrupt County Treasurer of Atlantic County in the 1920’s (based on the real life Nucky Johnson), is standing on the porch of a house talking with his driver and friend Jimmy Darmody. Darmody is trying to get Nucky to give him a boost by placing him in a ward boss position in Atlantic City. Nucky refuses, telling him that it’s not how things work and that he won’t get that position anyway. Jimmy pleads his case and the exchange ends with this:
Jimmy Darmody: Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.
Nucky Thompson: This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?
The reason I bring this up is that I think it illustrates the heart of the point I want to make. What is stopping unemployed librarians (either new graduates or current ones) from finding new applications for their education and experience or becoming entrepreneurs? We are surrounded by a vast and expanding information landscape that will not level off or slow down for the foreseeable future. This is information that is begging for management as it creates its own productivity and morale issues in the workforce. There are companies that could use someone with library science skills search, interpret, and otherwise tame the data that they have gained and stored. We are in an age of knowledge. The person that arrives at the conclusion first due to having the right data in hand at the right time wins. Be the person to make that happen.
Rather than wait for someone to burn out, opt out, or die out of the librarian profession, create your own opportunities and businesses. Libraryland does not owe you a job. Find a spot that needs attention, create a business that addresses that, and get going. You’re an information professional. Start acting like one. Do your research, put together a plan, and go for it. Unemployment is not the elephant in the room for librarians; innovation of a changing field is. Be the person to change what it means to be a librarian.
In the time that my reader took to write me to say, “Where are the jobs?”, they could have begun making one for themselves. And I hope they do. I’ll keep my resume up to date for when they succeed. Why? Because I want to see where they will take the librarian field next.