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Is the United States Training Too Many Librarians or Too Few? (Part 1)

Posted By Brett Bonfield On September 21, 2011 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

Two Years Ago by Leah the Librarian / CC-BY-NC

Two Years Ago by Leah the Librarian / CC-BY-NC

For new library school gradates, or for more seasoned librarians ready for a change, entering the job market can be an intimidating, frustrating experience. We hear that there are no jobs available, and that the few libraries that do advertise new openings are inundated with applications.

Perhaps less publicly, we also hear administrators express concerns about a lack of good candidates for important positions, and we notice some jobs being advertised for months or being re-posted, sometimes more than once. We notice ALA’s estimate of over 122,000 libraries in the United States, as well as its estimate that academic, public, and school libraries employ over 150,000 librarians (ALA does not estimate the number of librarians who work for special libraries, vendors, or other employers). It may also be worth noting that, although U.S. unemployment as a whole remains relatively high, employment rates appear to be stratified by education level: in 2010, the average unemployment rate among people with Master’s degrees was 4%.

Because we do not yet have access to reliable, real-time data, we are left with imperfect, occasionally confusing information. No one knows the actual employment rate among librarians or how satisfied librarians are with their jobs. Nor do we know how satisfied administrators are with the librarians they employ or the applicant pools for positions they hope to fill.

By looking at the past and the near future, and by studying the process of conferring Master’s degrees on prospective librarians, we can begin to think about strategies for ensuring that we, both individually and as a profession, are taking an efficient approach to matching libraries’ needs with the supply of library workers.

Should library schools admit fewer students? Is the admissions process sufficiently selective? Are library school curricula and graduation requirements too similar or too distinct? Are they providing their students with the skills they need in order to get hired and do useful work? Should there be licensing exams for librarians? What data would we need to collect in order to come up with useful answers to these questions?

I hope this essay makes a contribution to that discussion. My original idea for it was to build on existing analyses of ALA-accredited library programs, adding my own observations based, in part, on my status as a somewhat recent library school graduate (Drexel University, September 2007), first-time adjunct professor (I taught a course at Drexel’s library school this past summer), and potential faculty member (I am a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University’s library school).

That will have to wait for the second part of this essay. Before discussing how library schools might better serve public interests and their students’ needs, we need to make sure we have reliable data about current library programs. The rest of part one is devoted to the story of that data.

The Librarian Job Market: Projections

According to the latest data (2008) from the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 159,900 librarians and in 2018 there will be 172,400, a projected growth rate of 7.8% (between 7% and 13% is considered average). The anticipated number of job openings due to growth and replacement needs is 54,500, with 12,500 openings attributable to new jobs being created and 42,000 due to attrition.1

We have been hearing about the graying of the profession for a long time, a factor that will contribute significantly to roughly one quarter of all current librarians leaving the profession by 2018. Who will be hired to fill those positions? What qualifications will they be expected to possess?

Right now, 84% of librarian jobs require a Master’s degree, 13% require a Bachelor’s, and 2% an Associate’s, and new job postings appear to indicate an increasing expectation that applicants will have earned a graduate degree in a library-related field. According to Nazi Torabi’s review of research by Robert K. Reeves and Trudi Bellardo Hahn, most current employers are requiring an MLS or MLIS, though even a Master’s degree is not sufficient. In addition, writes Torabi, “experience, either through internships, co-op programs, or part-time or full-time employment, is essential for new graduates seeking employment.”

As mentioned above, the BLS expects employers to need 54,500 new librarians in the ten years spanning 2008 to 2018. We can represent that need as requiring 5,450 new Master’s-level graduates per year (54,500 divided by 10).

If library schools were to continue conferring 5,478 degrees per academic year, which is the average number of MLS and MLIS degrees they awarded from 1997-98 through 2006-07, there would be roughly as many new librarians as new jobs for librarians.2 Based on the years the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) makes available for comparison, 5,478 Master’s-level library degrees per year would be near the midpoint given library schools’ relatively recent history:

  • 1970-71: 7,001
  • 1975-76: 8,037
  • 1980-81: 4,859
  • 1985-86: 3,564

One concern, at least for recent and future library school students, is that library schools have already begun conferring more Master’s-level degrees. The number of degrees conferred increased every year between 1999-2000 and 2007-08. In addition, in the two academic years following the ten years included in the average above (1997-98 through 2006-07), Master’s-level graduates from library schools numbered 7,162 (2007-08) and 7,091 (2008-09). That not only makes the job market especially competitive for recent graduates, it also means, if the number 54,500 was correct, that library schools should aim to graduate roughly 40,320 for the eight years remaining in the BLS ten-year projection, an average of 5,040 for the academic years 2009-10 through 2016-17.

There are several problems with the information presented so far in this essay. Before continuing, it seems worth discussing three primary issues.

1. Unlike medical schools, which faced pressure not to produce an oversupply of physicians, there appears to be no pressure on library schools to graduate only as many librarians as will be needed to fill vacancies

As with the job market as a whole, a limited level of unemployment among degreed librarians increases employers’ ability to hire selectively among the most qualified candidates while simultaneously decreasing salaries. When they produce more librarians than are needed, library schools make libraries happy by vetting, and providing initial training for, a more highly skilled, cheaper work force.

The key for library schools is to avoid granting so many degrees that the entry-level market for librarians becomes significantly more competitive than comparable job markets. If a disproportionate number of potential applicants perceive librarianship as offering worse prospects than comparable alternatives, then it becomes increasingly likely that the overall number of library school applicants will decrease and that library schools will have to compete with each other more aggressively for the most highly qualified applicants.

Although library school students are already graduating into a difficult job market, it seems at this point to be no worse than the job market facing law school graduates. While the salary potential for the most highly qualified new librarians is nowhere close to the salary potential for the most highly qualified new lawyers, the risk is nowhere near as great in terms of the amount of debt encumbered by the average student or the time commitment required to complete school. On a risk-adjusted basis, it is entirely possible that library school is a safer decision.

2. Economic projections are notoriously difficult

Projecting what will happen tomorrow is incredibly difficult, let alone what will happen next year or over the next decade. But selecting 2008 as the initial year for a projection may have been especially inauspicious given what happened that year: a decline in U.S. gross domestic product, along with the start of an unemployment spike and a stock market crash. Projections are worthwhile in that they help to provide some direction, and there is no reason to believe the Department of Labor projections were based on anything but the best available information. But, as librarians well know, sometimes the best available information will only get you so far.

3. Figuring out how many people graduate each year from an American Library Association-accredited program with a Master’s degree in a library-related field is surprisingly difficult

I thought this would be the easy part of this essay. With the help of a Presidential Task Force on Library Education, ALA’s Committee on Accreditation updated its Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies in 2008 and released a statement of Core Competencies in Librarianship in 2009; it also released a revised second edition of its Accreditation Process, Policies, and Procedures in 2011. As is demonstrated in a Library Journal article by Norman Oder on the Presidential Task Force on Library Education and in the Committee on Accreditation’s own Standards Review blog, many within the information professions take the accreditation process seriously, and there can be significant debates surrounding accreditation policy.

ALA’s Office of Accreditation helps to vet applicants for the External Review Panelist pool, and also supports the accreditation process by maintaining a directory of currently accredited programs, as well as a list of all programs accredited since 1925. However, no one at ALA officially knows how many students graduate each year from the programs it accredits. When I asked for this information, I was directed to ALISE, the Association for Library and Information Science Education, which produces an annual Statistical Report.

The ALISE reports, which are compiled from questionnaires submitted annually by each accredited program, provide a great deal of data and analysis. However, I discovered a few problems when I tried to make use of ALISE data for this project:

  1. It is proprietary and accessible only to ALISE members. Though the University of North Carolina provides public access to the Statistical Reports for 1997-2004, several of ALISE’s more recent reports are inaccessible to me, despite my connections to Rutgers and Drexel. Fair use seems sufficient for me to share the data I most care about—the number of graduates from each of the accredited library programs for each of the past ten years—but there is no reason to assume most readers would be able to verify any claims I make about the data.
  2. It appears to be inaccurate. The individual number of graduates for each accredited program, when summed, does not equal the number given as the overall total for reports covering the 1999-2000 (off by 8), 2000-2001 (off by 13), 2001-2002 (off by 19), or 2002-2003 academic years (off by 9).
  3. It is incomplete. The 2007 report, covering the 2005-2006 academic year, is unedited and unreleased, while the data for the 2008 report has not yet been compiled from that year’s questionnaires. The ALISE web page for its Statistical Reports lists both as being “for future release.”
  4. It does not match the data the schools reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, in some years it is higher and other years it is lower, so it does not seem to be differing in a predictable way (such as NCES including data from non-accredited programs).
  • 1999-2000: 4,877 (ALISE “total”) or 4,885 (ALISE sum) vs. 4,577 (NCES)
  • 2000-2001: 4,953 (ALISE “total”) or 4,940 (ALISE sum) vs. 4,727 (NCES)
  • 2001-2002: 4,923 (ALISE “total”) or 4,904 (ALISE sum) vs. 5,113 (NCES)
  • 2002-2003: 5,175 (ALISE “total”) or 5,184 (ALISE sum) vs. 5,295 (NCES)

IPEDS Data: Annual number of graduates from each ALA-accredited program, 2000-01 through 2009-10

For these reasons, it does not currently make sense to use ALISE data as the basis for answering questions about the relationship between library schools and the library job market. Fortunately, an alternative to the ALISE data is available through the NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Data Center.3 IPEDS uses Classification of Instruction Programs (CIP) codes, which for the most part are extraordinarily useful in figuring out how many people graduated from each of the ALA-accredited library programs in each of the last several years. The last three CIP code revisions—1990, 2000, and 2010—have the same code number for Library Science, 25.

Among accredited programs, all report graduates for the Library Science classification except the University at Albany-SUNY, the University of Michigan, the University of Missouri, and the University of Puerto Rico. I have written to each of these schools and included their information in the following table.

Some Observations About the Data

My goal for this essay was not to engage in detailed statistical analysis. Rather, I wanted to verify that useful data is available for free from a readily accessible source, a necessary step before progressing to part two of this essay. However, before discussing part two, it seems useful to make a few observations about the data and ask a few questions that may eventually lead to useful information.

  • If you rank the largest classes for each school by size, the top ten graduating classes between 2000-01 and 2009-10 are:

    1. 465 (San Jose State University, 2009-10)
    2. 456 (San Jose State University, 2006-07)
    3. 448 (San Jose State University, 2007-08)
    4. 437 (San Jose State University, 2008-09)
    5. 359 (University of North Texas, 2006-07)
    6. 356 (University of North Texas, 2009-10)
    7. 338 (San Jose State University, 2005-06)
    8. 315 (University of North Texas, 2008-09)
    9. (tie) 308 (San Jose State University, 2004-05)
    10. (tie) 308 (University of North Texas, 2007-08)

    All ten classes appear to be primarily attributable to two administrators. Ken Haycock was director of the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University from 2005 until 2010, and Herman L. Totten has been dean of the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Science since 2005.

    This raises two questions: Is it a good thing for the profession for administrators to be able to position their schools as outliers in the production of ALA-accredited Master’s degree recipients? And if it is not, are there remedies that would avoid creating even greater issues than the problem they would be intended to address?

  • It may be interesting to see if the number of graduates from a program relates to its perceived quality, a measure readily available through U.S. News:

    U.S. News ranked 50 master’s degree programs in the United States that are accredited by the American Library Association. The rankings are based solely on the results of a fall 2008 survey sent to the dean of each program, the program director, and a senior faculty member in each program.

    The questionnaires asked individuals to rate the academic quality of programs at each institution as outstanding (5), strong (4), good (3), adequate (2), or marginal (1). Individuals who were unfamiliar with a particular school’s programs were asked to select “don’t know.” Scores for each school were totaled and divided by the number of respondents who rated that school.

  • Does the recent increase in the number of library school graduates seem to correlate more closely with endogenous factors, such as the iSchool movement or the increasing emphasis on online education, or with exogenous factors, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics study or broad economic trends?

Looking ahead to part two

The significant variation in the number of students in accredited library programs, along with the rapid increase in the number of students who receive their library training without ever meeting one of their professors in person, harks back to library education at this point in the last century. Melvil Dewey’s personal influence began to wane after the first few years of the 20th century and Andrew Carnegie was already very actively funding libraries, leaving something of a void in library education just as demand was increasing. There were few training programs we would think of today as library schools, so many of the people hired to work as librarians received their education through correspondence-based programs.

In 1919, the Carnegie Corporation hired Charles C. Williamson to assess library education and make recommendations for how it might best support libraries and their users. In 1923, he published what is generally known as the Williamson Report, though its official title is Training For Library Service A Report Prepared For The Carnegie Corporation Of New York.4 Williamson’s findings and suggestions led to the Carnegie Corporation funding the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago, which conferred the first Ph.D. in Library Science, and played a pivotal role in establishing the standards for library education that arguably remain in place today.5  As noted above, ALA began accrediting library schools in 1925.

Working together, ALA and the Carnegie Corporation were increasing demand through advocacy for libraries—specifically, by funding new libraries—and also through advocacy for librarians by investing in their educational resources: new schools: dedicated, better trained faculty; modern textbooks; and updated, evidence-based curricula. Meanwhile, they were decreasing supply by adding de facto regulation in the form of library school accreditation, a limitation on supply that continues today. From the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition entry for librarians:

A master’s degree in library science (MLS) is necessary for librarian positions in most public, academic, and special libraries. School librarians may not need an MLS but must meet State teaching license requirements…. States generally have certification requirements for librarians in public schools and local libraries, though there are wide variations among States. School librarians in 20 States need a master’s degree, either an MLS or a master’s in education with a specialization in library media. In addition, over half of all States require that school librarians hold teacher certifications, although not all require teaching experience. Some States may also require librarians to pass a comprehensive assessment. Most States also have developed certification standards for local public libraries, although in some States these guidelines are voluntary.

These are not the only conditions minimizing competition and protecting working librarians from termination. Librarians may also belong to a union, earn tenure (or quasi-tenure), or hold Civil Service commissioned positions. While occupational licensing among librarians is not as organized as it is in fields like medicine or law or the financial industry, it may be worth investigating if librarianship could benefit from more licensing or less, and, if any licensing at all is beneficial (either to the public, to librarians, or both), how it might best be organized.6

Finally, it seems worth investigating who is educating librarians and how the educators have themselves been taught. Library science is part humanities, part social science, and, at times in the past, and perhaps in the near future as well, part information science, and even computer science. Figuring out how these tensions might be balanced has everything to do not only with the producing an appropriate supply of new librarians, but also ensuring these new librarians have the requisite skills to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Thanks to Nicole Cooke, and to my Lead Pipe colleagues, Emily Ford and Leigh Anne Vrabel, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. And thanks to Emily for helping me with the final draft as well.

You might also be interested in:

  1. To find this data on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, go to Selected Occupational Projections Data: Search by Occupation, enter Librarians as the keyword and choose “Job openings due to growth and replacement needs, 2008-2018” as the variable. []
  2. These figures are derived from data found in the National Center of Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics for 2010 and for 2009, “Master’s degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by field of study: Selected years.” For 2010, the source data is found in Table 283, and for 2009, it is in Table 272. []
  3. From the IPEDS Data Center home page:
    • Select Compare Individual Institutions.
    • On the resulting page, select Publicly Released Data, then select Continue.
    • The field labeled Institution Name on the next page also accepts either individual UnitIDs for schools or a comma separated list of UnitIDs. Download this list of UnitIDs for all schools that had ALA-accredited programs between 2001 and 2010, enter its values into the Institution Name field, and chose Select. If you choose, review the list for accuracy against the earlier linked current directory and historical list of ALA-accredited programs, then choose either Check All or check the box next to individual institutions and select Continue.
    • You will be presented with a list labeled My Institutions. Select Continue.
    • On the resulting page, select the plus sign next to Completions to see a list of variables, and under it select the plus sign next to Awards/degrees conferred by program (2000 CIP classification), award level, race/ethnicity, and gender – includes new race/ethnicity and award level categories, and under it select the plus sign next to Gender – 2002-03 to 2008-09. For Step 1, select the check box next to any or all years between 2002-2003 and 2008-2009. For Step 2, select both First Major and Second Major and choose Save; select Library science (option 25) under CIP Code – 2000 Classification and choose Save; and choose Master’s degree under Award Level code and choose Save. For Step 3, choose Grand total. Then choose Continue near the top of the screen.
    • You will be presented with a list labeled My Variables. Select Continue.
    • Decide if you want Institution name only or if you also want the UnitID (I recommend the former), if you want short or long variable names (I recommend the former), if you want to view your report on screen or download it (I recommend the former first, followed by the latter), and if you want imputation and status flags. There is also an option to include a name for the table. Select Continue.
    • Adjust accordingly. Data earlier than 2002-2003 is available, but uses 1990 Classifications for its CIP code and is listed under a different variable. There is also early release data available for 2009-2010, but it requires a free login, which can be obtained by contacting IPEDS through its help desk.

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  4. See also:

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  5. Richardson, J. V. (1982). The spirit of inquiry: The Graduate Library School at Chicago, 1921-51. Chicago: American Library Association. []
  6. See:

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