Editorial: Recruitment, new librarians, and the future

By Phoebe Ayers, MLIS day

In recent years, the American Library Association (ALA) has been actively focused on recruiting new librarians to all areas of the profession. The two justifications for this recruitment drive are the aging of the profession and consequent possible shortage of librarians, and the need for a more diverse workforce. These recruitment actions are predicated on the assumption that the demographics of the field are changing and that more positions are opening up. At the 2005 ALA midwinter meeting, James Matarazzo, Emeritus Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, gave a presentation on the inability of library schools to produce enough librarians to fill positions that will become open over the next decade; this assumption, that the supply of librarians is running out, seems to be held by everyone in the upper levels of ALA administration.

The pressing question for everyone fresh out of library school, however, is whether those assumptions are true. Anecdotally, new librarians everywhere are having difficulty finding work. Not so anecdotally, in an article recently published in Library Journal, Rachel Holt and Adrienne Strock reviewed the job market and found that "out of the nearly 900 job opportunities [they surveyed], roughly 11 percent were open to new librarians." This estimation rings true to anyone who has recently been looking for a job in the field. Many of the jobs available are either not skilled enough (paraprofessional or part-time) or too skilled (upper management) for new librarians. Furthermore, Holt and Strock write, even entry-level positions seem to be going to tenured professionals rather than new librarians, while the average number of open librarian positions shrinks as the drive to hire non-MLIS librarians continues and the economy worsens.

Holt and Strock further suggest that library school education is partly to blame for the trend of open positions not going to new librarians, as many enrollees in MLIS programs "enter master's programs thinking that they are earning the degree that will allow them entry into the library profession. They are not aware, by and large, that library experience is essential to their success upon graduation." Furthermore, "discussions with recent graduates reveal a great disconnect between the kind of education they expected to receive and the kind of education ALA expects schools to provide" - that is, between the expectation of learning practical skills and the reality of learning the theory that the ALA accredits for, an issue that has come up in these pages before.

So, for those of us who have an MLIS but little experience (like myself, alas) and who cannot even get a phone call back from entry-level positions - we are not alone, although that is cold comfort. Librarianship requires experience, as Holt and Strock write, and rarely seems to reward innovation or potential.

On the eve of my graduation with an MLIS, I found reading Holt and Strock's piece disturbing and a little unnerving. While I have been hearing complaints about the sagging job market since I entered school, seeing it in print in Library Journal seems somewhat different. This issue equally implicates the ALA and library schools. Why won't either take notice? It is not just a matter of ALA revising its accreditation requirements for schools to include more practical experience, as Holt and Strock suggest; it is also a matter of the ALA standing up for new librarians and fighting to keep the kind of jobs that we are qualified for (preferably with decent pay). The entire library field is in turmoil. But libraries will never get the new blood or new energy that will help revitalize the field if they eliminate entry-level professional positions, keeping only paraprofessionals and upper managers. Holt and Strock sum up their argument by writing: "while there is an intense, ongoing campaign to recruit new MLS students, there is no concerted effort to hire them once they've graduated. It is unreasonable to invite an influx of new colleagues into the profession without making room for them" and I think this is entirely true.

In general, I tend to agree with Christine Borne on that the ALA should "stop this recruitment nonsense right now." Not only should they stop it, ALA should actively work to put their energies into creating and keeping positions for the new librarians that exist already. Borne's article suggests that perhaps the ALA should start a "Me, A Library Administrator?" campaign instead, to move people into the management positions that do seem to be opening up. This is an excellent suggestion, but fundamentally, people need entry-level experience first, and ALA should realize this. To her credit, one of the candidates for ALA president, Christine Lind Hage, did address the concerns of new librarians. Unfortunately, she was not elected.

Perhaps ALA's refusal to face the reality of what it's like for new librarians right now is symptomatic of a larger refusal to face the future. The upcoming president of ALA, Michael Gorman, is an advocate for the "traditional" way of doing things in the field and is notoriously suspicious of new technologies. In a paper given in 2002, he writes that two major crises in the field include "newly graduated librarians lacking an education in basic library skills (reference service, cataloguing, etc.)" and "the greying of the library profession leading to the retirement of large numbers of librarians with irreplaceable skills." Respectfully, Mr. Gorman, perhaps a greater problem is when libraries themselves are cut or eliminated, which is not something that is the fault of digital resources or the dying off of older librarians with "irreplaceable skills." Personally, I feel that new librarians should learn "traditional" and "non-traditional" skills - programming and reference can peacefully co-exist. Good librarians have always been innovative, and they should continue to be so. Once upon a time, after all, cataloging was "non-traditional." That doesn't mean it was a bad idea. Education for librarians needs to be reformed, perhaps to include more of the "traditional" education that Gorman complains is lacking - but at the same time so does the profession and its hiring practices.

The other part to the recruitment drive, of course, is the drive to recruit a more diverse cadre of librarians. This is entirely admirable and I agree with the goals of the Spectrum Initiative whole-heartedly. However, the same caveats apply. It does very little good to recruit an eager, multicultural workforce if there is no place for them to work. Finally, diversity does not simply mean ethnic diversity. It also means diversity in age, in skills, and in viewpoints, and this is something that the library world has been much slower to acknowledge. Libraries - and the ALA - must acknowledge the contributions of new librarians if they are to do well.

I set out this evening, working on my final issue as co-editor of the Silverfish, to write a short piece about the ALA and new librarians. I stumbled onto something more - onto a problem in the stratification of the profession that affects all of us looking for a job and ultimately affects the health of the profession at large. Open jobs are weighted towards managers, not entry-level positions, and the graying of the profession, while a fact, does not affect the job market the way the ALA claims it does. Finally, library education seems to be unintentionally misrepresented as a shortcut to a career in a library. These things are depressing, and I certainly have no easy answers. The only cause for hope I have is the enthusiasm, talent and energy that I have seen in my peers in the iSchool - energy that will one day soon combine traditional and new skills to revitalize the field of librarianship and make libraries truly indispensable. I have heard more than one librarian call the profession "a calling," and I believe that for many of us that is what librarianship is. I only hope that when we go calling, looking for work, libraries and the ALA do not stopper their ears and refuse to let us in.

  • ALA Spectrum Initiative. Available at:

  • Borne, Christine."Stop the Recruitment Nonsense Right Now!" May 5, 2005.

  • Gorman, Michael. "The value and values of libraries: A talk given at the "Celebration of Libraries." Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford: September 20th 2002. Available at:

  • Holt, Rachel and Adrienne L. Strock. "The entry level gap." Library Journal: May 1st, 2005.

  • Lynch, Mary Jo. ALA Recruitment & Retirement Survey. Available at:

  • Matarrazo, James and Joseph Mika. Presentation given for the ALA Recruitment Forum, ALA Midwinter meeting, Boston MA. Jan. 14, 2005. Available at:


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Page last updated: June 3, 2005