As the number of people enrolled in library school continues to increase, and as the amount of funding for libraries stagnates or shrinks, and as our culture of information and technology changes and evolves, more and more “library school” students are turning to non-library jobs.
Are these non-library librarian jobs inferior? Are they second class jobs?
Yes and no.
People go to library school because they want to work in libraries. When these people arrive at library school and begin to hear a push for non-traditional career paths, they are being given a bait and switch. It is tough to get a library job. If you’re a library school administrator, and you want people to persist at your library school, when they realize that the money they are shelling out is really very possibly not going to result in a full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay librarian job, you’ve get to sell them on some palatable alternative. If you want to keep your full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay library school administrator job, you’ve got to help your school keep the hope of employment alive. Because as much as learning theory is fun, library school is about getting a job. The ubiquitous “MLIS from an ALA accredited school required” ensures that people who want to work in libraries, as librarians, will continue to go to ALA accredited library schools. To get work. In libraries.
That being said, people who want to work outside of libraries also go to library school. Library school attendees include people who want to do data management or knowledge management or information architecture, etc. They want to build databases or write indexes or massage information tidbits with their bare hands. They think they’d enjoy working for library vendors or software developers or even making whole new careers and spaces for themselves, in some weird industry that doesn’t even know it needs library skills. And sometimes people who go to library school* intending to work in a library find a non-library librarian job that they fall in LOVE with, or just end up liking ok.
This is a manifestation of our current information shift. To use a phrase that’s trite at this point, “information doesn’t all live in libraries anymore”, if it ever did, and some people are more interested in information than in libraries. For those people, non-library jobs are not second class jobs, they are the whole point of the thing in and of themselves. When these people get a non-library librarian job, that’s an opportunity to rejoice.
But this focus on non-library librarian jobs is also a manifestation of our lack of library jobs. There are fewer opportunities to work in libraries while non-library opportunities are still growing**. It’s as though it’s easier to build a single new position, or to shift the path of an opportunity, than it is to rebuild depleted library staffing.
This second reason, is why I continue to make the distinction between non-library librarian jobs, and library librarian jobs.
Because we don’t want to obscure the loss of opportunities in libraries, pretending it’s ok. It isn’t.
*It’s not really library school anymore either. A recent respondent to a Hiring Librarians survey took me to task for saying using this term – calling it old fashioned. And it is, I guess. Most of us more recent grads have an I for information secreted somewhere in there amongst our letters.
**At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “But what about that seven percent growth rate that we’re going to experience over the next ten years? Slower than average, but still growing!”
Well, I’m skeptical. Read the BLS’ page on job outlook for librarians, and you’ll find the sentences: “later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings” and “the increased availability of electronic information is also expected to increase the demand for librarians in research and special libraries, where they will be needed to help sort through the large amount of available information”, both sentiments which have moved into the “hollow promise” category. You’ll also find:
Budget limitations, especially in local government and educational services, may slow demand for librarians. Some libraries may close, reduce the size of their staff, or focus on hiring library technicians and assistants, who can fulfill some librarian duties at a lower cost.
Call me a pessimist, but that last one rings true.
Photo: Abandoned Basement Area by Jessamyn West via Flickr and Creative Commons License