Librarians by the Numbers

As I was finalizing my conference schedule for the ALA Annual conference this year, there was a blurb for one of the programs that caught my eye. It’s for a program entitled “Passing the Baton: Who Will Take It?” on Sunday morning.

There are 72 million baby boomers, 11,000 Americans turn 50 every day, 4.6 adults turn 65 each minute, and almost 60% of librarians are 45 or older. There is little balance: only 7% of the library work force is age 20-29!

My first thought was one word: “Really?” But as I thought about in the context of my own life, it made sense.  When I graduated with my MLS, I was 29 going on 30. Librarianship was a second career, just as it was for a number of my peers at work. This also means I’m in the relatively large minority between the ages of 30 and 44; which, in using their numbers, is about 33%.

If you apply the percentages to the ALA Library Fact Sheet, it gives the following breakdown out of 149,521 librarians:

45 and older – 89,712

30-44 years old – 49,342

20-29 years old – 10,466

To give a sense to this result, the number of librarians 45 and older is approximately equal to the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the 355th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

If you were to presume that the membership of ALA followed this same age distribution pattern, the numbers get tinier based on an estimated organization size of 55,000 (the total number of eligible voting members). (I used this number instead of the full 63,000 members mentioned in the annual report since that can include trustees, friends, and other non-librarians.)   

45 and older – ~33,000

30-44 years old – ~18,150

20-29 years old – ~3,850

(And if you were to apply these numbers to the percentage of members who voted in the last ALA election (20%), you get ~6,600 (12% of the total voting membership), ~3,630 (6.7%), and ~770 (1.4%) respectively. But, alas, I am venturing into very specious logic at this point; I just wanted to run the numbers out of curiosity. I’m sure someone out there has real numbers that could change the perspective in a moment’s notice.)

Anyway, back to numbers with better backing; these statistics bring to mind a couple potential explanations.

As I stated above referencing myself, librarianship is not often a first career choice. Like myself, I was doing other things (commercial horticulture and later law school) before I settled on the profession. There are a number of people that I know who did the same; they worked in a different field, it didn’t suit them, and went back to school to get an advanced degree. They came to librarianship as it held something that was missing or incomplete from their first career. In taking a second look at their occupation expectations, library science was closer to what they wanted to do as a career.

Additionally, unlike the other sciences (both hard and soft), you cannot major in library science as your undergraduate degree. There is essentially no coursework connection from undergraduate to graduate for library science. It relies on people from other disciplines becoming interested in an MLS; not exactly the best manner in which to recruit people in the program. As the undergraduate major teaches you to think within that field, this can create its own disparity when approaching the library science mindset. Not all degree teachings are compatible, in my opinion, with that of the approach emphasized in a MLS graduate program.

(To be fair, I can’t even imagine what an undergraduate requirements for a degree in library science would even look like.)

I have a couple of other ideas, but I think I need some more time to reflect upon them (and do some fact checking). So, what do you think is creating this age gap?

28 thoughts on “Librarians by the Numbers

  1. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a B.S. in Library Science:
    At Kutztown University
    or at Clarion University
    or Southern CT University

    From what I can see, most are combined with another program, such as education or information technology. But… (playing devil’s advocate) what’s the point when most library jobs require an ALA-accredited ML(I)S?

    • I knew there was some programs out there, but no college or university sprang up to the top of my searches for undergraduate degrees. In combining with other degrees, I didn’t really feel like it was the same as the master’s program.

      But you hit the major factor: what does it matter if jobs require a minimum of a master’s degree?

      • It is different for school library media specialists, since they are equivalent to teachers. They don’t necessarily need a master’s degree (it may be different from state to state); what they need is an endorsement (ie a certain number of credits/types of courses) in their subject(s) – which in their case would be library and information science – and teacher certification. That would explain the subject pairing, as well.

    • Sara:

      I can’t speak for all the programs, but I know the one at Kutztown is geared for teachers who want to be school Librarians. They don’t need an ALA-MLS to do that, but need a library degree and this satisfies that requirement.


  2. I looked into this briefly for a presentation last year – it is one of the two big reasons I think that the whole ‘ library stereotypes / cliches / reputation / perception ‘ thing IS important even though it is old, boring, and quite miserable… People aren’t being attracted into the profession in sufficient numbers because the profession is wrongly seen as boring. I think it takes many people till their 30s to even realise what modern librarianship really *is*.

    Anyway we have similar issues here in the UK – I wish I had some nice statistics to match yours, I may ask CILIP for some. There is a whole generation, particulaly of cataloguers, who will retire pretty much all at once without adequate replacements.

    To play a really satanic devil’s advocate, the problem appears to be reduced by the fact that so many jobs are going right now, meaning there are less jobs to fill anyway. That may (hopefully) be a short-term thing, though.

    What is weird is that, here at least, every single job is incredibly competitive. When I first started in a 12k a year customer services post, 70 other people applied for the post I got. So a lot of people quite like the idea of working in a library – the trouble is, many of them think of it as transcient and comfortable, rather than vital and vocational.

    • Yeah, it did pass my mind that, with librarians retiring and the state of library spending at the moment, some of those positions will be eliminated or remain unfilled until the economics improve. So, having a smaller generation coming up is not necessarily a bad thing.

      However, it does not encourage people to get into the profession, as low job openings is not encouraging to people trying to gain entry.

      Maybe librarianship is a ‘second glance’ profession?

      • However, it does not encourage people to get into the profession, as low job openings is not encouraging to people trying to gain entry.

        So…I don’t know. Before I got into school, I saw lots of reasons to be optimistic about job prospects. Not just that the economy was better, but that the statistics my grad program put out about job placement looked good, the people I did information interviews with were very optimistic about my skill set, and everyone was talking about librarians about to retire (including the Bureau of Labor Statistics…) It was only well after I had gotten into the degree program that I heard anyone being pessimistic about things. The conversations we’re having in the field about the labor outlook may be totally different from what people outside the field are hearing, in which case they can’t be discouraged (even if they should be).

        Mmm, apparently I’m getting a bit bitter about how long I expect to be unemployed for. le sigh!

  3. The median age at Simmons when I started was 28 — and that was down from 30 a couple of years ago. So the 20-29 age group is starting to expand, but definitely most of the people I saw were around my age.

    This really just raises another question, but I think, for whatever reason, very few people grow up thinking “I want to be a librarian!” Lots of people encounter librarians as kids, and I have no idea why kids want to grow up to be other professions they encounter (firefighter, police, teacher) but seldom librarians. I guess teachers are omnipresent to kids, and fire & police have glamour, and neither (for all that hipster glam like brand yourself a librarian may be changing that). As you say, it’s the sort of field where people understand the appeal after they spend some time working at something else.

    I’m curious what you mean by “not all degree teachings are compatible…”: as, often, the only student in the room with a tech degree, I think the field would benefit from greater diversity of undergrad preparation. In an academic library context, it’s also striking to me how different the habits of library use and scholarly communication are in different fields, and I think people tend not to realize this without diverse disciplinary backgrounds (and thus they propose ideas that work great for their own fields, and utterly broken for others).

    • What I hedge at is that different studies emphasize different thought processes, that there are different paradigms at work to train the person to work within a field. (e.g. the scientific method, specific critical thinking and evaluation, logic and reasoning approaches, etc.) I don’t think that all of these different paradigms, constructed so that a person can think like the other members in their field, is completely compatible with the library science approach.

      Personally, as someone with a science background (I have a BS in Biology), I find there is very little of the scientific method involved in library science. I think some of my peers in the same major back in college would be baffled by some of the thought processes that go into library science. To that end, I don’t think they would find the field attractive.

      • I see that, but I don’t understand what you mean by “incompatible”. I mean, I definitely find that my mathematical training puts me in a very small minority in this field, but I also feel like I and library science both are stronger for having access to those different modes of thinking. “Uncommon” isn’t the same as “wrong”. But it sounds to me like you’re saying that certain disciplinary backgrounds make people fundamentally unsuited to LIS, and I don’t get how that would work (am I reading you wrong?).

        (I do agree that I don’t see a lot of scientific method, at least so far — but again, I think we might be better off with a bit more of that…no, it’s not the right way to solve all problems, but some problems would benefit from more of it.)

        • Incompatible is possibly the wrong word. What I’m trying to say here is that there are thought processes that are talk to undergrads (“We’ll teach you to think the science way!”) that do not lend themselves well to the approaches taught in library science.

          Does that make it clearer?

          I don’t think any field is unsuited per se, but I think that when you’ve been taught to think one way for four years, some derivations from this pattern might be hard to reconcile.

  4. When I was in graduate school 27 years ago, the undergraduate programs were often key parts of the education of school librarians. Combined with the education department curriculum many state certification requirements could be met at the undergraduate level. As I understood it, like teachers, librarians educated at the undergraduate level often began their careers and then returned for masters degrees thus entitling them to better pay, more opportunities and the like.

    The age issue has intrigued me for a while. When I was in library school I think there were only a couple of us that went directly from undergrad to grad school. Most were, as described by Andy, seeking a second profession. I forget exactly when I stopped being the youngest person in the room but it was long after I graduated and started my career. From my perspective the profession has always seemed older demographically. I’d like to see data about the age breakdowns from the 80’s to see how it compares.

  5. Of course the 20-29 group is going to be smaller! Assuming the normal trajectory of an American higher education, the youngest a person could be walking around in possession of an MLIS and a job is about 24 and they’d have to be terribly efficient to make that happen.

    I’d like to use myself as an example, as I have seen my own pattern repeated by a number of colleagues – I got my MLIS when I was 28 years old, so pretty firmly in that 20-29 camp. I didn’t consider it a second career, as I didn’t really have a career before that – just jobs. It took me until I was 29 to find a part-time job in the field that had the word “librarian” in the title. Now, at nearly 31, I am finally getting my first full-time job in the profession. 30-44, here I come.

    I know a fair number of librarians under 30. They’re just not called librarians because no one will give them work that reflects their training, skill, and education. It’s not a problem of attracting younger professionals; it’s a problem of respecting and supporting them once they’re among us.

  6. I echo Raina’s sentiments. I am now in the 30-44 age range but the majority of my graduating class were in their mid-20s. Out of approximately 60 people, only one sixth have full time work as librarians. Why is this? I can only hazard guesses based upon my personal experience.

    First, mandatory retirement is being abolished in many Canadian workplaces. Boomers are working later in life and when they do choose to retire, their jobs disappear and the workload is divided amongst the remaining employees.

    Second, because the economy allows employers to be more selective most job advertisements require a minimum of one year and, more often than not, five years’ experience. This effectively screens out most new professionals, who then work part-time or in jobs that are only tangentially related in an effort to gain any workplace experience and pay the rent.

    In addition, I have known several outstanding candidates who have interviewed for jobs advertised as entry level only to discover the library hoped to obtain an experienced librarian at an entry level wage.

  7. I was one of the youngest people in my program. I started the fall after I graduated college in May so I was 22. I finished in 4 semesters (including a summer). I did it pretty quickly, mostly because I was tired of being in school. I went straight into the MLIS program because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and with a degree in history I wasn’t qualified for much. One of my professors said I would make a good academic reference librarian and that I should talk to the SLIS people at my university. I did, liked the program, and was accepted. Six months out of school, I still really don’t know what I want to do, but I have a degree and right now I’m a medical librarian.

    This really has nothing to do with numbers other than my own comment to say that I was one of the youngest, but the number of people right of undergrad is growing especially for on-campus students. DE seems to still be mostly students going back to school.

  8. I think the age gap is being caused by the economy. There are many unemployed Librarians with lots of experience and they are being hired over the newly minted Librarians. I know of many graduates who have been out of school for over a year and still have yet to find a full-time Library related position.

    I also think pay is big consideration. I know that for me when people ask me what salary I will be getting with my MLIS and I say “probably around $35,000 to start” (that’s the recommended salary by the Pennsylvania Library Association) they are aghast. First that you need a Masters Degree to be a Librarian and that secondly having that required masters degree commands such a small salary compared to other people with masters degrees in other fields.

  9. I agree with Peter Coyl — poor salaries are the main issue. I will graduate in December with my MLSIT, and have no hope of finding a job. Master’s programs are pumping out oodles of graduates who can not find gainful employment, especially those with no previous work experience.

    The Occupational Outlook Handbook projects many new positions opening in the field as older workers retire, but when an employee has been poorly paid over the lifetime of their career, they will not be retiring before 70 years old. I think we will have at least another 10 years before the staff over 45 start vacating positions – hopefully by then the pay will be better. Until then, I will take any part-time contract that comes my way and hope for an opening.

    • Sue: I think one of the issues is as the older librarians retire, they are replaced but those who replace them are not being replaced. I also think people are staying at thier current jobs rather than retiring because 401(k)’s and such took a hit a few years ago.

  10. I think the age gap, is caused mostly because, as Andy said, librarianship is a 2nd career for a lot of people. I was one of the rare people in my library school, and among my colleagues, who went straight through from undergrad to library school, and I was the youngest librarian at every place I worked until I was in my early 30s.

    And as others have said, the age gap is exxagerated a bit now, because people are delaying retirements due to the lousy economy.

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  13. Most of what I was going to say has been covered here already. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that I believe the age of our profession, stereotypes/cliches regarding librarians and the recent loss of positions/slashes in budgets are all branches from the same tree. Librarians are good at lots of things — but marketing themselves and letting the world know what we do, why we do it and how important it is, isn’t one of those things. If the world knew these, I think more people would be lining up to join the fold.

  14. I’m an undergrad interested in librarianship. I have to say, I often feel like I need to justify my chosen field to others when I tell them. I literally had a friend tell me that I seemed “too smart” to “just” be a librarian. I think it has the same reputation as teaching does, in a way: that it’s a refuge for people who don’t know what else to do, or can’t hack it at something more difficult or prestigious. The exact reason I want to be a librarian is that I think it would be intellectually challenging and interesting, and yet the reputation of the profession reflects nothing of the sort.

    For what it’s worth, I became interested in library work completely by accident–I took a job in my college library mostly because there weren’t a lot of other options. And I wound up in the archives and special collections, where the work for students is generally much more hands on and I could actually observe the staff at work and how they served patrons. But that doesn’t seem like a very practical way of introducing potential librarians to the field on a large scale.

    • No one really knows what a librarian does. I didn’t. I started looking at grad schools and just stumbled across it. And of course, my first reaction was “you need a masters for that?”

      • Most people are shocked to hear a librarian does need a Master’s. I’m one of the rare ones, that went from undergrad to grad school.

        One of the reasons the age gap exists is because librarianship isn’t exactly a “cool” profession to get into. Since when have books ever been cool? It’s not as mainstream as a profession as teaching, for example. Even the word librarian connotes many different images in our society, none of them particular flattering. I’m not trying to put down my profession at all (I think it attracts many intelligent, humorous, and quirky people). A young person in their early 20s, with the whole world at their fingertips, might not necessarily think of the library as a career hot-spot. We get lots of action and I enjoy it, but let’s face it—it’s not as exciting as, say, aspiring to be a photojournalist or something to that extent. Despite this (or maybe because of it?), I continue to see librarianship being listed as one of the “hot careers” to look out for.

  15. It seems to me that the age gap is hardly interesting since, as you and a few of the other folks mentioned, many ‘first-career’ librarians get degrees in their late twenties but stick around as librarians for a long time. What I would really be interested in are how these numbers have changed in, at least, the last few decades. Without any historical context all that can be assumed from the figures presented is that there are more older librarians than younger which, in itself, is 1) not surprising, and 2) not alarming.

    Further, I don’t think that these number are especially unusual when compared with other professional occupations. I suspect that there are many professions that have similar numbers. According to a fact sheet* put out by the American Bar Association, the age range for lawyers are:

    20-29 – 7%
    30-44 – 41%
    > 45 – 53%
    (I know, it adds up to 101%, *shrugs*)

    Another thing we must consider is that the 20-29 range is only 9 years while 30-44 is 14 years and over 45 could be 30 years or more. Of course it follows that there is a higher percentage of older, if it wasn’t then we’d have something to talk about. As it is, I think the idea of an age gap is mostly an empty topic – the gender gap on the other hand…

    * ( )

    • Perhaps the better question is how many people come to librarianship as a second career. While it’s true that it compares well to other careers that requires advanced degrees, my question would be how many law students are returning students as well.

      I think one of the internal debates that this sort of information fuels is the idea that the profession is out of date due to older members who are out of touch with current information needs (read: digital delivery). This is probably more of a stereotype within the profession than the actual reality, but it remains nonetheless.

      • More than the second-career folks, I’m worried about the librarians already working for many years that refuse to take the time to keep up with the basic changes in the technoscape. Many of the people for whom librarianship is a second-career, certainly those that have gone to library school in the last 5-10 years, were forced to hop online to access sources and type papers using a word-processor (here’s hoping it wasn’t Word 95) – at UCLA, I even took a class where we attended a panel discussion in Second Life. Online-only programs have the same effect regardless of age. I heard from friends that a core class in the San Jose SLIS required students to create an InMagic database. Having never done that myself, I must say that that’s something.

        I guess I am risking an assumption that iSchool graduates are led to think about digital resources and their these resources in libraries since they must actively use them. Whether that will cause them to stay up-to-date once they leave school is another question.

        The underlying anxiety when discussing the age gap seems to be, along with the stereotype you mentioned, that because there are not many librarians aged 29 and under, that the profession is not being resupplied/reinvigorated by young blood and therefore somehow missing out. I’m skeptical of this too since, in the current economy, the supply of librarians outstrips demand but more so because I don’t see why second-career librarians would be any less capable or dynamic than the 7% of youngsters.

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