Reader Mail: Unemployment in Libraryland, Ctd.

Some of the respondents of the original post have gotten hung up on two things.

The “Boredom” Part

Some have taken offense to this particular word and interpreted it to mean that I am insensitive, uncaring, or otherwise flippant regarding librarian unemployment. That’s not the way I meant it. To me, the math behind the unemployment (supply versus demand) is, well, the math. I’m not going to sit here and polish a turd, spin the numbers, and say, “Oh, it’s going to be alright.” I’m going to treat my readers like they are adults and offer them an honest opinion. Too many applicants, too few jobs. That’s what it is.

As much as the survey ten years ago is cited as a contributing factor to the “greying profession” myth, the survey itself is provides an vastly incomplete picture. It doesn’t forecast one of the largest economic downturns in the last eighty years. It doesn’t predict state and local governments squeezing their budgets and make spending cuts that include libraries and their staff. It doesn’t account for the actual rise of communication and computer innovations, the genesis of ebooks, or the expansion of the internet to its current incarnation. Quite frankly, it is not a complete predictive model for anything other than saying that this percentage of librarians will be near retirement age in ten years. That’s it.

Every week, I help unemployed people look for work. I work with them to make resumes, cover letters, help refine old strategies, and find new places to look for employment. I show them the compassion and service they need during a very anxious part of their life. Everyone leaves with something in their hands, even if it is just my business card and a “call me if you need anything” offer. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times in my life. I know the feeling. I don’t take what I have for granted in the slightest. And I truly feel for librarians both old and young who are looking for work; I wish I could help find jobs for everyone.

The “Entrepreneurial” Part

Within this objection, there are two parts. One half is a snarky “Why don’t YOU become a librarian entrepreneur?” reply that reminds me more of a playground taunt than a serious counterargument. As if my suggestion to start a business is completely invalidated because I have not started my own. It’s a weak shot at saying that since I have never started a business that I don’t know what I’m talking about… from other people who have never started a business either. (With the exception of one commenter who has a non-librarian business.) It’s a position that is so baseless and unimaginative as to be completely illogical.

Then there is the "the degree has not prepared me for this” statement. That leads me to this question: if you were able to go to college, get a four year degree, then pass the GREs, successfully apply to the graduate program, and then get an MLS, how are you not intelligent enough to start a business? I want to know where the intellectual capability line is between “smart enough to get an MLS” and “smart enough to start a business”. I’ll give you a hint: such a comparison is nonsense. There are less academically endowed people that start businesses everyday. It’s a complete excuse masquerading around as a retort.

The other half is asking for examples or ideas for librarian entrepreneurship. That’s a fair question, certainly; what kinds of businesses could an MLS degree develop? But I think it misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether there are a million businesses or none; it does not preclude someone from starting one. If there are a million, then there is a market for such things. If there is none, then it means there is an untapped market. (The cynical can say that there are none because they have all failed, but that’s a lame excuse not to even try.) Mine is a call to innovate, to look at the market, to find a niche, and to exploit it. Also, examples are meaningless to individuals without the impetus or dedication to make it happen.

If you think I’m copping out of answering the question, that’s your opinion. You’re a librarian; you should be fully capable of doing the research. Prove me wrong. I have no qualms about admitting when I’ve made a mistake.

As for ideas, I would be happy to provide ideas if you are alright with cutting me a royalty check every month. I’ve given away enough ideas as it is (perhaps you’ve seen the ALA endangered species shirt?) that I might as well get paid for ones that I give away for someone to start a business. As I’m working to capitalize on my own ideas in bringing them to market, I’m a bit out of those kinds of ideas. (I would daresay that it would be akin to starting my own business, but I digress.)


Some might object to the tone of the last half of this post but, quite frankly, the time for handholding and kumbaya in libraryland is at a close. There is a very serious and very real need to “show up or get out” in terms of advocating worth, demonstrating value, and engaging our communities as well as our funding bodies to ensure the continued life of the institution. It’s not the time for people to sit on the sidelines and lament, but to get off the bench and into the game.

I’m in it to win it, as they say. “Can’t” or “won’t” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to libraries. And if you want to works towards keeping libraries vital and open, you’ll do the same.

21 thoughts on “Reader Mail: Unemployment in Libraryland, Ctd.

  1. There is no doubt that librarian unemployment is an issue, and an extremely emotional one at that. As someone who was formerly unemployed and is now a library entrepreneur (Founder, Beyond Sliced Bread), I can see both sides to this debate. To be an entrepreneur you have to take financial risk. This is non-negotiable. Even if you are blessed with venture capital, there are no guarantees of success. You have to be willing and prepared to fail. I’m sure that a lot of unemployed librarians are coming out of grad school with serious debt and are looking for financial stability, not additional risk. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    Could libraries benefit from more librarian entrepreneurs? You betcha. Would you be nuts to start an entrepreneurial business that serves libraries right now? Maybe. We know that library budgets are being slashed. The pieces of financial pie available to those who are selling services and products to libraries are tiny slivers. Keeping in mind that the average consultant, independent contractor or sole proprietor will be very lucky if they can bill 1000 hours in their first year. And that half of that revenue will go directly to taxes. I can’t speak to how it works for selling products, but I am guessing there are similar challenges with more upfront cost and risk.

    In addition to the financial realities, you’ll have to be able to do everything (or have enough income to pay someone). For example, you’ll need to build and maintain a website, create a logo, market your product/services, pricing, accounts payable/receivable, negotiation, social media, sales, tax prep, PR, business cards, templates, proposals, stationary, etc.

    I’ll admit that I don’t have any definitive solutions to offer to those who are unemployed, which is part of the reason I hesitated to comment. However, I make extra effort to help new grads and the unemployed/underemployed whenever I can. I network with people on LinkedIn, rewteet them, tweet their blog posts, and offer advice when asked. I know it’s not much and I would like to do more.

    I do know that we can help support librarian entrepreneurs is by hiring them (or buying their products)! If your library is doing a project, seek out independent professionals for quotes. It may take more time up front than going with a large consortium or company, but it could have great rewards for everyone – and lead to more library innovation and entrepreneurship.

    Andy, you’re a great blogger and are certainly entitled to write about whatever you want. Write on!

  2. I went to the site with stats on the “graying of the profession” and the information is even weaker than I’d expected.

    This is the question that was asked:

    “Please consider all full-time staff with master’s degrees from programs in library and information studies accredited by ALA and estimate how many are in each of the following age groups.”
    The age groups listed are 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60+. The results indicated that full-time staff LIS master’s degrees were heavily represented in the 40-49 and 50-59 age groups.

    This information alone, tells us nothing about the graying of the profession as a whole. It only tells us the ages of people with MLIS degrees who have full-time jobs in libraries. It doesn’t mention people with master’s who hold part-time jobs and it doesn’t discuss what kinds of jobs these people hold (do their jobs require an MLIS? Are they paraprofessionals? Do they do non-librarian work for a library full-time?)

    It also doesn’t discuss the issue of supply, as you mention in your posts. From what I’ve heard, the idea that there is “graying of the profession” has been around since at least the 1970s, but it has never really been proven true.

    If this report had gathered statistics on how many people hold MLIS/MLS degrees in the country and the ages of those people, we’d have a much better picture on the outlook for librarians in the future.

    This is something that bugs me about the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. It only discusses how many jobs are expected to exist in the future in a given field, it doesn’t attempt to determine how many people are and will be qualified to fill those jobs. Obviously, if supply exceeds demand in a given profession, the outlook for that profession isn’t good, even if the number of jobs is expected to increase.

    To look at this from a much larger perspective, there are currently jobs available in this country. I’m job-hunting and I’ve seen hundreds of job postings online and I’m sure there are even more jobs out there that are never posted online.

    However, we can’t only look at the number of jobs available to determine whether the job outlook is good, we need to know how many people are looking for jobs.

    I don’t recall the exact number of unemployed in the US, but for every available job, there are 4.7 people looking for work. Or, to put another way, for every 10 jobs, there are 47 people looking for one.

    I actually do find this issue interesting because it’s not merely a numbers issue, it’s an issue of how well the average person researches, understands, and interprets those numbers and how they use that information when encouraging or discouraging people from entering a given profession.

    Anyway, apologies for such a long comment! I just wanted to add to your discussion on that ALA survey.

    • Thank you for your comment. My thoughts are starting to turn towards whether it is a location thing as mentioned by another commenter on the original post. That is, if people are willing to relocate or not. Also, there is a matter of salary; I have friends who cannot take positions because it simply doesn’t pay enough. They have mortgages or kids or both and it is a matter of the finances not being there to make a living.

      And yes, it is a matter of perspective.

  3. Thought I’d chip in with some more resources along the entrepreneurial lines:

    • “Becoming A Library Consultant,” ALA Professional Tips wiki (with a couple of book suggestions) –
    • “Wanna be an info-entrepreneur?,” Librarian of Fortune blog –
    • “Become an Information Entrepreneur,” Rethinking Information Careers –
    • LIS Career Options subgroup on LinkedIn –
    • ALA/ASCLA’s Independent Librarians’ Exchange (ILEX) Section –
    • Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) –

  4. Maybe I am too modest, but honestly… someone who JUST got an MLS and only has internship experience….what kind of business would I really be qualified to start in the information field? Who would or really who SHOULD trust me? I didn’t start my own business until I was somewhat of an expert in my field and had built up a network of clients.

    Which brings me back to my main point that the MLS degree is an antiquated useless degree that doesn’t do much to PUSH the field into the future to get us all to think BIGGER! Bigger ideas about information and society. Honestly, at times I felt like was at a secretarial school! Sure some of the program needs to be nuts and bolts how to stuff. And if it is going to be so dreary …then it would have been nice to have had a job at the end. But we never looked at ways to use this kind of degree in other ways either. Shouldn’t the program also be multi-disciplinary and engage us on more intellectual ideas of the role of information? Shouldn’t more of us be at the table of public policy?

    Oh well, at least I went to school for free and have no loans to pay off and I have my own business to keep running.

    Hopefully as the economy improves, more people will feel less afraid to switch jobs and more will open up.

    • See, this is what makes me wonder about different programs. My experience at Clarion (and I mean *at* Clarion, not the online program) was a different experience. It wasn’t some of the Mickey Mouse crap that I have heard about. I found it to be useful and insightful in talking on broader themes, controversial topics, and getting into the theory and philosophy of library science. Yes, there were some dull rote classes (that’s how I felt about cataloging), but I appreciated the bigger themes and broader discussions.

      Library school certainly feels like one of those ‘your mileage may vary’ sort of things.

  5. I’m a librarian entrepreneur, sort of.

    I have a bunch of different jobs including

    – community manager for an online Q&A site
    – book author
    – computer teacher
    – public speaker
    – substitute librarian

    And I have a bunch of unpaid work such as running the Vermont Library Association website and the 251 Club website and serving various committees. I did this because I couldn’t hack the hours or the pay of public library work and what I preferred to do was help people use computers. My rural location and odd hours also make me a perfect candidate for an online job. This job market is expansing, rapidly, and there are neat things to do. Plus, people in these businesses can learn a lot from people who understand metadata, taxonomies, real privacy policies and what it truly means to work for the public.

    Facebook emailed me when they were starting their question and answer site to “discuss opportunities” and I said no thanks. Not to necessarily say that anyone can do what i do or support themselves doing it, but there are a good chunk of jobs that don’t require a ton of start-up capital or specialized skills so much as showing up, being personable and saying “Hey I can do this and here is why you need me”

    I know I’ve come to all of this late, but I figured it might be worth giving this side of the discussion some attention. Thanks for all of this Andy.

    • And I appreciate your sharing these things, Jessamyn. There is a lot to be said about just showing up. I think some of the hand wringing around what I wrote is related precisely to that. There isn’t going to be a road map for all of life’s moves; sometimes you just have to make your own.

      Moreover, there is power in the simple statement, “I want to do X”. You want to blog? Hey, there are tons of platforms out there, some of them free. You want to start a new program at the library? Start writing up a plan and figuring out the logistics. You want to speak at ALA? Start building your brand on a topic you love and talking with people in the right committees or sections. You want to start your own library oriented business? Figure out what you love, find a niche, build a business towards it.

      In a conversation with a friend, he talked about applying for positions that he didn’t meet some of the qualifications. But his attitude was basically, “I’m going to tell them why they are going to hire me anyway” in both the cover letter and interview. It’s a matter of looking at some barriers as merely guidelines and pushing through. I’ve always thought of that when it comes to trying something new in my own library or in libraryland in general.

      Sometimes, you just have to use a little moxy.

  6. One of the big takeaways from my ALA Emerging Leaders training (Andromeda will agree with me) was, THERE IS NO SPOON. I use all caps not to be annoying but to drive the point home – nothing in life will be handed to you on a silver platter (or silver spoon), you have to go out and get it.

    The world needs more entrepreneurs, especially in library land.

    • Thanks for this handy post, AnnaLaura! Combined with Andromeda’s, I think it provides some excellent examples for people who say, “What kind of business can a librarian get into?”

  7. Sure, ideally, you get a library and information science degree and you go work in a library. But, if that doesn’t happen, those skills are transferable. Thinking you can only work at a library and it’s the only way you’ll find career satisfaction is an act of stubborness.

    Flip through a copy of Fast Company magazine. All those young, hungry, growing companies. Shoot them a call or email and see if they need a freelance researcher – or better yet, if they want to hire someone who has great research abilities and is willing to take on other tasks that help the company grow! (Preferably full time hint hint!)

    And, I don’t work in a library. But I’m active in the library world and I love my job and still call myself a librarian, because it is at the heart of who I am.

  8. US News published an article on this EXACT topic today. This problem (and partial solution) isn’t unique to librarianship:

    “1) Create options for yourself: Everyone is sending out resumes, but the job market is rebounding very slowly. So don’t just look for a job. Instead, multitask and pursue an alternate path to supporting yourself by thinking like an entrepreneur. Come up with a product or service you can offer even while you’re job hunting, such as designing Web sites, painting houses, managing social media, or producing promotional videos.”

  9. As a library school educator, I would also encourage readers to look closely at the degree programs and ask themselves if the program they are considering actively encourages them to look beyond “what is” and into “what will be,” and then provides readings, projects, discussions, and tasks that help them build the skills and habits of mind they need to move from now and into the future.

    Whether they employ this creative thinking and problem-solving skillset as librarians looking for new solutions to support patrons (as you did when you extended the core value of service into resume support for patrons, which is decidedly not a skillset you learn in grad school) or into entrepreneurship of a for-profit ilk, this kind of practice is essential.

    A great library school will give you a foundation to hit the ground running after graduation but the dispositions to keep growing throughout your career.

    If you’re looking for a static career, librarianship, quite frankly, isn’t it (if it ever was).

    On a slightly tangential note, I would also recommend that grad students seek out conversations with their professors and department support staff, who may be able to link them to external mentors, internships, job leads, and more.

    They can engage you in conversations that push thinking on both sides and help you test your theories. They can point you toward additional readings or thinkers to support your developing philosophies.

    Asking about the level of support you can expect from your department is a good move for those considering library school.

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