Quick quiz: Is the employment outlook for librarians growing or shrinking? The answer depends on what you call a library job.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for librarians is slower than average, with a projected rate of change in employment this decade of 7%, slower than the 14% average growth rate for all occupations.
This sounds bad! Who wants to join a profession where you need a Masters degree and the projected rate of employment growth is half of the national average?
But dig a little further into the BLS description of a librarian and a picture starts to emerge. For example, some of the BLS librarian duties include:
- Plan programs for different groups, such as storytelling for young children
- Read book reviews, publishers’ announcements, and catalogs to see what is available
- Choose new books, audio books, videos, and other materials for the library
BLS partners with a site called O*Net OnLine that provides a more detailed report on librarianship, including the tools and technology used in the occupation. According to O*Net, some of the tools of the library trade include cash registers, microfilm readers, photocopiers and public address systems and technologies such as email, spreadsheets and desktop publishing software.
Then take a look at their list of the top four tasks of librarians:
- Analyze patrons’ requests to determine needed information, and assist in furnishing or locating that information.
- Search standard reference materials, including online sources and the Internet, to answer patrons’ reference questions.
- Teach library patrons basic computer skills, such as searching computerized databases.
- Plan and teach classes on topics such as information literacy, library instruction, and technology use.
Are you getting the picture? The BLS description propounds a somewhat parochial view of what it means to be a librarian these days, and the sad truth is that the traditional library they describe is becoming rapidly endangered as government budgets come under intense scrutiny.
The problem is, the BLS view doesnt describe too many of the librarians, archivists and museum professionals I know. Just for kicks, lets compare the BLS librarian description to the job area of Computer and Information Systems Managers, which O*Net describes as having a bright outlook (projected to grow at a rate of 29% or more this decade):
- Consult with users, management, vendors, and technicians to assess computing needs and system requirements.
- Stay abreast of advances in technology.
- Provide users with technical support for computer problems.
- Assign and review the work of systems analysts, programmers, and other computer-related workers.
- Evaluate the organization’s technology use and needs and recommend improvements, such as hardware and software upgrades.
Funny that list looks a lot more like the job descriptions of the librarians I know!
Never was this worldview disconnect more apparent than when my colleague Erin Engle and I spoke at the Fedlink Fall Expo (PDF) back in October. We spoke at the Forging a Digital Roadmap: The Preservation, Curation, and Stewardship Nexus event, which was sponsored by the NewFeds and Preservation Working Groups.
In my keynote presentation (PDF) I proposed some possible areas for new federal librarians to pursue if they had an interest in technology (big data, digital humanities), assuming the necessity of pointing out these interesting opportunities in librarianship.
Little did I realize that the NewFeds panel of early-career government information professionals that followed would be full of people talking not just about possible opportunities but demonstrating the incredible technology-based work they are already doing.
The panelists included Robin Butterhof, a digital conversion specialist in the Serial And Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress who is working on the National Digital Newspaper Program; Bianca Crowley, a collections coordinator from the Biodiversity Heritage Library who described the challenges of making their content available across an international taxonomic community; Wanda Davila, who described a signal management research tool being developed by the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the Food and Drug Administration (a tool to identify potentially dangerous food and drug issues out of massive amounts of unstructured data); and Piper Mullins, the program coordinator of the Pan-Smithsonian Cryo-Initiative (did you know that the Smithsonian collects frozen things?)
(A webcast of the entire event is available.)
Even though the panelists all self-identify as librarians, the type of work they do is somehow missing from the BLS librarian job descriptions. There are efforts happening all over the place to define what it means to be a librarian, but I still dont see terms like digital archivist or repository librarian or library digital infrastructure and technology coordinator showing up in general descriptions of librarianship, even in well-meaning ones like the American Library Associations (I dont think the word puppets should appear in any librarians job description ever again).
Librarianship is an increasingly technology-focused profession and thats only going to become more true in the future. There are still all kinds of stereotypes (or worse) that have to be dealt with, but if we dont act quickly to define the new face of the profession, others will do it for us, and it wont necessarily be in our favor.
So what are we going do about it?