Are We in the Midst of a Lost Generation of Librarians?

I’m working on another post right now, but there’s a question that keeps lingering in the back of my head. I can’t quite seem to resolve it so I’ll share it in the hopes that additional minds can help me out.

Are we in the midst of a lost generation of librarians?

It’s not a single thing that makes me think this, but several. It’s the common story of newly degreed librarians not being able to find positions within a short period of time after graduation. This creates a delay in terms of professional experience if new librarians are taking one to three years to find a job. So, for a profession that is generally a second career (as it was for me), it’s a double late start.

Does this lack of near immediate employment delay entry and involvement into professional organizations? I feel it does. While people are encouraged to join organizations as students, I feel that membership is the first to go if they are struggling through the job market. This generates another delay as it relates to professional involvement. Nevermind the fact that some libraries are cutting back on offsetting professional association dues, funds for conference attendance, or other professional development activities. Even then, in a place that recognizes seniority, those opportunities still may not present themselves.

Combined with the changing role and place of the library (technology! embedded! eBooks and eContent! classroom based!), it becomes a moving target in terms of skill sets. Even though the common complaint is that “my graduate school did not teach me how to do X”, there is an expectation of the skills and knowledge needed for the library at that current moment that the coursework is geared towards. While it is true that certain skills will never go out of vogue, the desire for employers to hire someone who can do the latest and best is not completely unexpected. Are these librarians going to be eventually bypassed on that basis if they can’t find a library job within five years? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

In writing this, I’m hoping to get additional ideas, thoughts, and perspectives on this question. I would be happy to be shown that we are not in the midst of a lost generation, but I don’t have the data to point to an answer in either direction. So help me out here, please.

43 thoughts on “Are We in the Midst of a Lost Generation of Librarians?

  1. Interesting post. I think this applies not just to students, but to those of us that have been in the library profession and are now out due to job loss, relocation, etc.

    I have been a medical librarian for about 10 years. I recently moved, and I’m now in the midst of searching for a job, but it’s not looking too promising. I’m getting ready to apply for non-library jobs, as I feel that’s my best bet. It makes me sad because I love being a librarian.

    I have been an active member of professional library organizations, but I won’t maintain those memberships if I get a job outside the profession. It is a brain drain for the profession when both new and experienced librarians have to look elsewhere for employment.

    Somewhat related-I question the ethics of universites which are pumping out thousands of MLS grads every year into a very uncertain job market. All that money and work into a Master’s, and you’re lucky if you get a job within a year?!

  2. I was one of the very lucky ones. I got a job five months after graduation, doing exactly the job I hoped to do, in the library I really wanted to work in. About 70% of the members of my graduating class were not so lucky.

    After two years, I think a supermajority are probably still waiting for that first job. One classmate recently announced, after getting an assistant job that didn’t require a degree, that she’d gotten her first “big girl” job.

    The irony is that we really were taught the latest and best, while I find colleagues struggling to understand why we’re using this whole new-fangled computer stuff. Or why it’s not enough to stay behind the desk all shift. Or why knowing the print collection isn’t enough anymore. Many love being librarians, but have lost their interest in dealing with the people who come to libraries because they are frankly worn out from trying to do the work of two or three people.

    And, yeah, if you’ve not gotten that first job after several years, hiring managers are likely to start thinking there’s something wrong with you, not the market.

    Even if you do land a job, the chances of getting good opportunities for professional development are horrible, at least from what I’ve seen. It’s hard to afford a professional conference if you’re barely getting by (I’ve got four jobs), and the money is pretty much only there for very senior people. Even if I could get another job, I couldn’t afford to move anymore.

    As much as I love what I do, I feel angry and depressed much of the time now, because I am way underpaid for what I’m called upon to do. And I’m one of the very lucky ones.

  3. My perspective is tangentially related – I was amongst the few who had difficulty finding a job in the Archives field immediately after graduation (I majored in Archives Management). I originally had memberships to two or three organizations that I was interested in, but I had to drop all but one. I kept that one membership, because I knew it was a means for networking and keeping abreast of the latest in my chosen field.

    Luckily, I was able to get a job roughly one year after graduation, however, it’s not in the archives field as I hoped, but in an academic university’s library, as an instruction and reference/e-resources librarian/E-Resources Librarian, which feels like a complete 180 from what I originally studied for (Open access? Information Literacy? ERM? What’s all that?).

    Luckily, the general theory of helping patrons (or customers), still applied, some general theories in terms of the technological revolution still applied (ideal website design, coding, etc). I was fortunate to attend a school where the professors tried their best to teach theories, while grounded in today’s rapid changes (they really tried their best!)

    However, now that I’m a librarian, I am no longer actively involved in the Archives field, I’ve dropped my Society of American Archivist (SAA) membership, because it was not possible for me to keep up in two different fields, especially considering how there are some topics in the library field that I never learned in Archives management that I’m just now trying to catch up on.

    One thing for sure, it’s been an interesting journey thus far.

  4. I was luck and handed my resume to someone who passed it on ect. until it landed on the desk of someone who had a job opening to fill. I was hired two months after I graduated, I didn’t start until 6 months later. I look at my job as an extended learning experience, it’s not the place I want to stay in the long run, but I know I’m lucky to have a job right now. I have 2 friends who are still looking and we graduated over 2 years ago.

  5. Hm. So we could use the LJ salary and placement survey to see the % of students employed each year within a given window, but that wouldn’t give us follow-up on how the unemployed ones were doing a year later (if it’s taking people 12 or 18 months instead of 6 to find jobs, I don’t know that they count as lost, you know? just delayed — though I DO think your point about how that delay impacts association membership is interesting). Would need better windows into longer-term outcomes and whether people are leaving the field entirely. (And even that’s hard to measure, says the librarian in a highly nontraditional job.)

    Anyway, LJ survey is a starting point.

    Maybe also there are some ALA demographics available? Member age, % using the unemployed dues tier, NMRT involvement…? Of course that’s all stuff you’ve gotta normalize against association membership as a whole, but if we’re seeing the new-grad membership dropping faster than overall, or if we’re seeing interesting things happen with the unemployed dues, might be interesting.

    Probably really most interesting ethnographically though, and I’m so far out of my depth there I don’t even have a depth to be out of.

  6. I think part of this is that there is such a small number of library leaders who are actually contemplating the issues raised in this post. I am a former public librarian that now works in the private nonprofit world, and I have to say that the intellectual horsepower defending the public library profession and purpose is seriously lacking in many ways (the academic world is a little better). Every time I read a public library journal I want to scream or laugh- honestly, another reference desk study? Would this pass for doctoral level research in any other graduate program?
    The honest-to-god fact is that working a reference desk does not require a skill level equivalent to a master’s degree. Competently administering a public library does, but there are too many mid and upper level administrators (particularly in large urban library systems) that barely know their way around a spreadsheet. When you are lucky enough to get that public library job, and then realize that your bosses don\’t know the difference between outcomes and impact, you’re a little discouraged about the future of the profession. We really need a critical core of scholarship and leadership that can take the public library into the future, and I appreciate this blog because it contributes to that core. But by and large, public library advocacy is reactive, and critically, lacking in the large swaths of the country that do not have a distinguished history of adequately funding public libraries.
    We may lose a generation of librarians, but that will be because of two factors: the tasks the public demands from us don’t require MLS librarians; and the administrators we have don’t create (or allow the creation of) programs and services that require MLS librarians.

  7. I think there is a perfect storm of issues out there effecting hiring in the library profession. When I graduated nearly 10 years ago I was able to find a job right away. Now, a decade into my career, I would like the opportunity to move up the ladder into a management position. However, management jobs are incredibly difficult to find because the people who currently have them are not retiring (as promised) and when they do leave these jobs are not being filled, rather they are shifting responsibility around. This means few jobs that would be considered entry level for new grads.

  8. I think anyone who wants to get a library degree should first look for any type of part time library job and work while getting the degree. The experience will give that person an edge over someone who has the degree but no experience. If you can’t find a part time position, then start as a volunteer and apply for part time positions as they come up.

  9. The issues you bring up here (delayed employment, professional orgs losing students after they graduate, etc.) are among the many reasons why I helped start SAA’s Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable: http://www2.archivists.org/groups/students-and-new-archives-professionals-snap-roundtable. Many of our members haven’t found jobs yet, or work outside the archives field, or just find our group less intimidating than other SAA groups. And although the conversation can turn negative at times, our members are excited and have good ideas for how to improve SAA. From conversations that I’ve had with SAA staff and leaders, SAA is pretty excited about us too.

    New professionals want to get involved and engage in professional development, they just need a venue that makes it possible.

  10. Pingback: Are We in the Midst of a Lost Generation of Librarians? | LibraryHints2012 | Scoop.it

  11. A lost generation seems like a reasonable label for the situation. “For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.”

    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_42/b4151032038302.htm

    “Library and information science degree-holders bring in $57,600 mid-career, on average. Common jobs for them are school librarian, library director and reference librarian, and there are expected to be just 8.5% more of them by 2020. The low pay rank and estimated growth rank make library and information science the worst master’s degree for jobs right now.”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2012/06/08/the-best-and-worst-masters-degrees-for-jobs-2/2/

    I think the comment posted by Dan is a fair assessment. “the tasks the public demands from us don’t require MLS librarians; and the administrators we have don’t create (or allow the creation of) programs and services that require MLS librarians. ”

    And it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries could offer more intellectually sophisticated programs that would warrant an MLS. Though, I don’t think it comes down to intellectual horsepower with regards to advocacy. I think that has to do with the larger economic pressures and the tax collection that fund public libraries and an anti-tax environment.

    I also agree with Dan “We really need a critical core of scholarship and leadership that can take the public library into the future, and I appreciate this blog because it contributes to that core.” Few blogs bring up these kinds of matters, so kudos.

    • Bibliotheks Polizei, gr8 comment!

      What do you think it would take to prompt libraries to “offer more intellectually sophisticated programs that would warrant an MLS”?

      Also, I see a great need for horsepower wrt advocacy. Current efforts seem pretty anemic to me – characterized by a lot of preaching to the converted, executing campaigns by rote that have thus far proven ineffective, and re-inforcing fragmentation that already keeps libraries weak. I also see advocacy focused outward toward the public and municipal officials when (IMO) the need for advocacy within the ecosystem is equally as strong.

      • Thanks for the nice words. :)

        Very quickly, I would define an intellectually sophisticated program in this case in the sense of depth of critical thinking and articulation you get from a masters level of education.

        In other words, it is the quality of program.

        The back end, the aggregation and preparation of materials and discussion topics by the librarian should be at the level of what one would expect from a person with a master’s degree. Think of great books on steroids and on different topics other than books. If possible have supplemental speakers from local colleges (including grad students and community colleges) and museums. I do want to call attention that the emphasis is on librarian’s preparation, the ability to adjust to the participants (including what to read) and the depth of the discussion.

        You could aim programs at some patrons that have some college and the NPR crowd, you could also scale the program down so it is more accessible.

        This is a pipe dream so don’t laugh. :)

  12. Andy – I believe the cohort you described are the 2nd or 3rd lost generation.

    The first were newly minted in the early 80s. They entered institutions disrupted by two developments: challenges to authority ushered in by Vietnam & Watergate and championed by feminism, and digital technology. Those folks seemed rooted in traditional librarianship, though shaken: “Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that academic librarians are drifting in a vast sea of information and technological advances, searching for an appropriate course of action. Nevertheless, we appear to have lost the stabilizing rudder of confidence in who we are and what we are to do.” (Bechtel, J. M. (1986). Conversation, a new paradigm for librarianship? College & Research Libraries, 47(3), 219–224.)

    IMO, libraries have not meaningfully responded to the developments above and began pursuing a strategy of somewhat desperate self-preservation. So the 2nd generation entering in the 1990s and early 2000s were aculturated to distance themselves from traditional librarianship and brand themselves as technogeeks, superheroes, etc. We still see remnants of the geek librarian today though it seems to be giving way to a new identity as facilitators who help everyday people create (conversations, 3D print objects, etc.) We’ll see where this goes; I’m not optimistic.

    This 3rd generation are under-or-unemployed, seeking jobs in institutions where the leaders are dissolving the professional role by remaking libraries into community recreation centers and relying more on part-time positions (which limit experience and advancement potential) and paraprofessionals.

  13. This is completely anecdotal, but the thirty to forty of my fellow LIS students that I have kept in contact with, I believe everyone found work in the time range of two months before graduation to a year after. Several of those cases were people who had been interning there till a job opened up.

    On the other hand, I put in about 48 applications before I received my job offer, so it was a lot of hard work.

    • I found a similar ratio among my grad school colleagues but, one big factor I noticed was whether people were able/willing to relocate and whether people were willing to work outside their preferred specialization. All of us who got jobs within several months (it took me five months and more than one-hundred applications) relocated, some to distant states, and many of us took positions with specializations that weren’t a first choice. Colleagues who stayed in the region and who kept their job hunts in a narrow skill range ended up at Home Depot or Starbucks.

  14. The idea that you need a skill set to get a job that you can only obtain by having a job is addressed in Peter Capelli’s new book, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: Chasing After the Purple Squirrel.” His argument is mainly geared toward the corporate world, as he argues that businesses don’t know how much it’s costing them in lost business to keep a position unfilled, but the overall premise that organizations are increasingly unwilling to train and would prefer to hire exactly what they need is true in our world too, I think.

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  16. There is a great deal of hand-wringing about the issue of library jobs, and yet, even a brief look at the history of libraries, one reads of constant crisis: Crises of legitimacy in the 1900’s, crises of funding in the 1930′s, crises of automation in the 1960′s., more funding crises in the 70’s and 80’s. After graduating in1962 from a top-notch MLIS program, my aunt had to move 300 miles away to get a low-level assistant job which she stayed in for several years before something better came along. I don’t doubt that the job market is very tough right now, but before we label an entire generation as “lost”, I would look more deeply into historical trends and see if new MLIS graduates are, indeed, facing a new phase of history or are merely players in a long continuum.

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  19. If we accept the idea that we must have a library job in order to grow professionally, then we probably are a lost generation. However, I think most of us in the field would agree that part of our mission is to encourage our patrons to engage in life-long learning, whether that be work-related or in personal interests. So, we must engage in life-long learning ourselves. If we cannot learn new professional skills in the “traditional” way (professional organizations, skills learned on the job, etc.), then we need to figure out how to do it differently. There are so many opportunities to engage in professional development at low-cost or no cost. I learn so much simply from reading blogs like this one and participating in online groups like LinkedIn and email listserves. Yes, we may have to fund some of our learning ourselves. Yes, that’s unfair and difficult. But if maintaining our professional skills is a priority, then we’ll figure out ways to make it happen. We’re really being lazy if we say we lose skills simply because we don’t have a job. That excuse simply does not hold up, in my opinion. Is it harder? Maybe. Impossible? No.

    • You can get all the training and PD you want, it won’t matter if there are no jobs. School, medical, public- they’ve all abolished tons of library jobs that are not coming back.

  20. I have to agree with you. I am not a librarian but have been “aiding” my MLS adult daughter’s quest for library jobs. This has led me to look at problems getting these jobs. She worked for 3 years undergrad as the college’s archives assistant. Did a project for her college’s librarian. Went on to get an MLS after graduating with honors undergrad. Worked all through library school as a computer cleric. After several years no professional job. Looked all over US. Now going for web design degree with internship presently at a company doing all sorts of things. I have noted growing lists of what they “want” for even a Librarian I job, like experience. How about fluency in spanish? Or an outgoing personality… Then the work is often part time…10 hours a week I’ve seen. I believe they need to stop minting librarians. And from contacting a friend who was a librarian I have learned that even 20 year ago library jobs were not easy to come by.

  21. I graduated with my MLIS in May 2011 from Indiana University, and even with the ALA Sprectrum Scholarship I won I still have not found my first job. In fact, I have another MA in English and I haven’t had a single email back. I’m broke, living in my childhood bedroom at home and applying to teach English in asia out of desperation. This is serious. I shouldn’t have to be exiled out my country due to lack or refusal to hire new (computer using) librarians. I haven’t given up, but I’m crushed emotionally and feel my degrees are worthless.

    • I know that you are crushed, but you at least have many MLIS graduate students, like me, who are in the same boat. In our Academic Library class, one of our class projects was to survey the job market for academic librarian positions. Not one of us could find an entry level position. The professor finally chimed in that the project confirmed his evaluation that something was amiss. The libraries do not need the new MLIS graduates. The open job positions required (and these were not preferences) a minimum of 2 to 8 years of experience, usually a second masters or intent to earn a PhD, “proven” advancement in your library career, “proven” several years teaching either info literacy classes or other college level classes, etc. etc. The job descriptions often read like a request for a highly skilled professor with an MLIS tacked on. Yes, I am still looking for a library position, but I seriously doubt that I will find one. I am now almost finished with a masters in education and I am also eyeing those overseas teaching jobs. I even interviewed with a school in Asia over Skype. It is sad that while I can’t even get as far as an interview for a library job while holding an MLIS, the education field is looking at my abilities and resume and has welcomed me into its ranks as a beginner without having completed a degree in education.

  22. You have more chance of finding a secretarial job than a librarian position. I started out as a secretary 30 years ago and am back at it again – haven’t been able to secure a decent librarian job in many years. Those that I had were downsized or the libraries were closed altogether. Not a field to go into unless you use the skills in another area. DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY ON AN MLIS and get into debt. Big mistake – you’ll never recoup your life.

  23. Timing is a huge part of landing a professional Librarian position. I hate to call it luck, but sometimes it just is. Willingness or ability to move (around the country) is an advantage, as is willingness to take less pay, or work in a different area than expected, in the beginning. I feel a library degree is beneficial in many different careers because it shows that librarians are technologically savvy, intelligent and dedicated information champions who know how to manage institutions of learning, supervise a work force, and enable people from all walks of life to enrich and improve their lives. So, no, I don’t agree that we are in the midst of a lost generation of librarians.

  24. While I have to agree with the premise of this article, many newly minted grads cannot find work anytime soon after graduating, and their careers will certainly be set back.

    I don’t think this necessary reflects badly on the future of libraries or librarianship as a career. On the contrary Libraries that are hiring have their pick of highly qualified, motivated, innovative, and just all around good candidates to hire. Librarianship is increasingly a first choice/dream career for many. These are good signs and I think these very talented individuals will help continue the transformation that libraries are undergoing.

    While I think the lack of jobs has eased, especially as state and local government budgets have recovered, I don’t think we will ever have enough positions for all people graduatinng from MLS degrees.This is partially the fault of schools producing more graduates than the market can handle, some of whom have no hope of landing a job. Some answers: admit fewer students, make library school harder, more competitive, the job market already is, so better to prepare students properly.

  25. Pingback: Reflections on Job Hunting « Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

  26. I received my degree 2 years ago and am now working a couple of part-time library jobs. I agree that my inability to relocate has been a big factor as well as my – second career – age. One big challenge is keeping up with professional training. If I want to be open to careers beyond my degree, how do I decide where to commit scarce resources of time and money? The best training in the wrong area is not useful on a resume. It is also difficult to stay active in professional organizations when my daily experience is not the same as that of my colleagues. Even my schedule makes it tough, since I am often working when my collegues are available for meetings. I don’t know that I am “lost”, but I am having to navigate a very different world from the one library school lead me to expect.

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  28. WOW! I’ve worked as a legal secretary for 27 years, but have found myself in the midst of cutbacks and layoffs. I considered returning to school to study Library Science. After reading this article and the responses, perhaps I’ll reconsider!

    • I hope I don’t end up eating words or putting you into a mountain of debt you can’t get out of but I think you in particular should get you MLIS. Having experience in a legal setting will make you very desirable working in a law firm, law academic or public law library. I worked part-time as law cataloger during my MLIS and it totally helped me find a job. All three of my jobs offers involved law libraries, law is specialty library and not one many librarians can get a job in because it requires a JD but since you worked as legal secretary you won’t have to do that, I didn’t.

      • I really appreciate your advice!

        I am a Veteran of the United States Armed Forces. Therefore, it is time to move on, and establish a new career, and/or use my present skills in a different environment.

        In April, I visited the Department of Veteran Affairs in the Federal Building, and was surprised by the number of benefits available to Vets. I’ve applied for additional schooling and retraining, and awaiting approval, which takes about four weeks.

        Lastly, I live in L.A., and am amazed by the number of schools that don’t offer Library Science.

        NAMASTE’

    • Your background is similar to mine. I was a legal secretary and paralegal before embarking on an MLIS. Went to library school just as the Internet was coming into vogue. Had librarian positions for about 15 years and then whammo – nothing. My suggestion: Don’t go to library school under any circumstances. The field is dying – and don’t let anyone (or the American Library Association for that matter) tell you otherwise. Use your V.A. benefits to lead to a field that will be in existence in the future. Think: Medical and perhaps Leisure areas. There’s a whole lot of Boomers out there getting old, retiring, traveling, but also needing medical care. Go where the need will be. Use your fed benefits to get a degree or training that won’t put you in debt. Librarianship is just one field being affected by globalization. We are in an era of shrinking opportunity for everyone. Perhaps we can blame part of it on technology on the one hand and global competition on the other. Good luck with your endeavors.

    • I’d check the job market first. Library jobs in all sectors are disappearing. Years ago, I used to encourage people to go to library school because of all the job opportunities- not anymore, the market is flooded.

  29. I’m stuck too. I’m a librarian for a small tech college that will be closing in about a year. So far, I haven’t found another job after searching for about half a year. It’s downright depressing as I have so many people making job suggestions for me and the jobs are either something that requires another degree or masters or something I have no training or interest in. I’m great at research (I worked as a researcher for the small business development center). I was a great Adult reference and YA librarian (or at least my bosses always made me feel like I knew what I was doing).

    I know it’s probably too soon to stress out, but it took me about two years to find another job after getting a little burned out in the public library.

    I can’t relocate now as most of the jobs in my husband’s field are in this area.

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