5 reasons to avoid library school

Thomas H. Benton urges “youngsters” not to pursue a PhD in the Humanities for various reasons. You can read them here in the Chronicle. Hundreds of protesters wrote to him because he stomped their dream of ascending the ivory tower. One of the most interesting things  he wrote (in parentheses) was this :

(One letter writer said, without irony, that we should be sending students to programs in library science.)

Without irony. Library science was, and still is, regarded as something to fall back upon when an academic cannot make it in their real academic field. It’s regarded as one of those fields for losers. Sort of that: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Except it’s: “Those who can’t teach, tend books.”

Like we need more book tenders. Seriously. I was offended when I first heard that, too. It was 1993 or 1994 and José-Marie Griffiths was the Dean at the library school at UT, when it still had library in its name, yeah, THAT long ago. Griffiths came to a meeting of the Boone Tree Library Association, a local group in East Tennessee, to speak about the spanking new distance education program. One of the librarians at the meeting posed the question:

Won’t distance education flood the market with too many librarians?

I figured she didn’t want the competition and that it was only a matter of sour grapes spurring her unease with all these newbie librarians hitting the job market. Her attitude didn’t dissuade me from pursuing my dream of becoming a librarian, it fueled it. That was a dozen years ago.  When my LIS advisor said “Anyone who wants to work can find a job.” But you have to move to South Dakota. She didn’t say that. The economy is different now. I bet finding a library job in SD is difficult, now, too.

Here are five reasons why you should not go to library school. It’s not because I don’t want you to become a librarian. It’s because I care about you that I’m telling you this:

  1. There are no jobs for you.  That’s right. You are not the only one on the job market, Potential Freshly Minted Librarian. You may see job ads here and there advertising open positions, but the truth is, that fresh out of library school, it is unlikely that you be hired. For every “entry-level” position advertised, you will compete with at least 20 or 30 librarians with more experience for those positions.  All of those people in the previous two or three years’ classes from your institution who haven’t found jobs are competing with you, too. Plus, they’ve had a couple of years to possibly gain professional creds. As a member of numerous search committees at a lower-tier insutitution–where you’d think people wouldn’t be all that interested in working/moving to–I’ve read through 60-80 c.v.s for one or two open positions, and those without experience are automatically tossed into the “reject them softly” pile. Further, library jobs disappear like you would not believe. Due to budget bulimia, our library “lost” approximately 8 positions in the last 9 years–half were professional and the other half were paraprofessional. You may read about a coming wave of retirement that will open hundreds of jobs for new librarians, but it won’t happen because of economic and academic trends.
  2. You will know debt. Is it worth it? You’ll rack up at least $20K in student loans and then be unable to find work to make your payments on this debt that will hang on you–think albatross–for 5, 10, or more years. It is smarter to take that $20K and dust off your entrepreneurial boots.
  3. You will be over-educated. Once you have a Master’s degree potential employers look askance at you. They can’t pay you what you’re worth–but they never will, anyway. Hiring you is a gamble because they know you’re looking for that professional library position. When I applied for a paraprofessional circulation position after I earned my MLS the director told me that.  The job market in my hometown is always tight because it’s a college town; it took 2 or 3 years for me to find a permanent, full time library job.
  4. LIS faculty are not savvy. Thirteen years ago when I finished my MLS, LIS faculty were out of touch with reality in libraryland, a.k.a. “the trenches.” It was so long since they’d worked in a library (if ever!), they were clueless about everyday practicalities. Nor were we taught the breadth or depth of technology we yearned for. And apparently more recent grad aren’t taught how to give BI/LI, either. Consider whether it’s really worth it. Could you just as easily learn the tricks and tools on your own? For the amount of money you invest, the return is dismal. MLS degrees are essentially green cards/creds that allow you to work in libraries. And the money, regardless of what those ALA “average salary surveys” say, isn’t so great, though it does beat working at Wal-mart for minimum wage and no bennies.
  5. You will not be happy. Libraries don’t need people entering the profession because they couldn’t get a job teaching at a university, or decided that learning Portuguese was too difficult and that’s why they didn’t pursue their PhD in History, or didn’t know which graduate program to enter and decided to give LIS school a try.  The number of people I encountered in library school who had never worked in a library before coming to grad school floored me. How’dya know you’ll like it? Libraries need people who are passionate about books, reading, information, and serving their populations. If librarianship is not your first choice, your top choice, your pie-in-the-sky dream job, then forget about it. Work at a bank. Sell cars. Scoop ice cream. But stay away from libraries.

Okay, if you’re really serious about librarianship, here are a two pieces of advice that do work:

  • Get a  job at an academic library as a paraprofessional. It is roundabout, but so very smart.  When you  work for a university, you can take classes at that university or at one of its allies within the state for free. This is the best way to learn whether you enjoy working in libraries and whether your intellectual and service philosophies match up with the profession. Plus, it is a fabulous strategy for earning your MLS for FREE. You’ll quickly learn that most paraprofessionals in libraries have at least one, sometimes two Master’s degrees because libraries attract smart people–okay, there are some less than average people, too–as do the professionals; there may be a few doctorate & PhDs in the ranks as well.
  • Pepper the libraries in your vicinity with queries about part-time work. This one really only works once you have an MLS: but, the best way to get your foot in the door of any library is to work for them part-time. And that probably means evenings or weekends. But if you’re serious about library work, you’re dedicated and determined, then evening and weekend work won’t dissuade you. This  likely means several straight hours at the reference desk. It’s tough work. You learn the library’s reference and online collections incredibly well. But, this gives you an awesome advantage over the applicant pool when a position opens: You’re a known quanitity. The quality of your work speaks for itself, and this should get you the job, set you apart from all the other applicants.  Four of the last seven professional positions hired at my library worked part time/adjunct for the library.

3 thoughts on “5 reasons to avoid library school

  1. I am sorry the point about library science has been misinterpreted. My point is that the situation in that field might even be MORE COMPETITIVE than the search for tenure-track positions in the humanities. I do not see library work as inferior; in fact, most of the important work in the humanities (at least that I care about) is being done collaboratively by librarians, tech people, and humanities profs who can finally see the digital writing on the wall. The problem is that library workers are being screwed by the same hiring practices that have 80% of the teaching to adjuncts.

  2. W., it is possible that the search for positions in librarianship is more competitive, as you suggest. I agree that all academics are hurt by the hiring practices of our universities. Business as usual must change, but envisioning that future is tough just now; it appears rather dim.

    • Yes, all kinds of academic workers have a lot to gain from solidarity with each other rather than petty status games that rightly anger information professionals in some contexts. Best wishes, WP

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