Careers in Academic Libraries

April 20, 2001

When Dale Askey enrolled in the graduate German program at Washington University in St. Louis, he had every intention of earning a Ph.D. and pursuing a career in college teaching. But after finishing his master's in 1995, he began to have second thoughts.

"For a variety of reasons -- a poor job market among them -- I chose to cut my losses and run," Mr. Askey says. As "an unemployed former grad student who wanted to eat," he turned to the university library for a job. He had worked there during graduate school, it suited him, and he soon enrolled in a master's program in library science.

"Library is one of the few careers where my background in German is useful and enhances my qualifications," says Mr. Askey, who is now a reference and Web-services librarian at the University of Utah. Working in a campus library offers him many of the perks of academic life: good health and retirement benefits, generous vacation, status as a member of the faculty, travel funds, some paid research time, and what he calls "endless opportunities to pursue avenues of interest."

Like Mr. Askey, many onetime Ph.D. students who become librarians choose to work in academic and research libraries, one of the three main sectors of the library world. The academic sector includes both campus libraries and large public research institutions like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. The second sector involves the specialized library collections held by corporations, medical schools, law firms, government agencies, museums, hospitals, and associations. The third and most traditional sector is local public libraries.

Increasingly, library science is extending into a fourth area -- technology and information services that are not necessarily rooted in a physical library. For instance, companies that create online text databases, like Lexis-Nexis or Ovid, hire trained librarians -- sometimes called "cybrarians" -- to select and organize texts.

For graduate students, the appeal of careers in academic libraries is clear: It is a way for them to remain on a campus in a research capacity. Academic librarians often are members of the faculty. Some are in non-tenure-track jobs, but others are on the tenure track in positions that may even include original research as part of the job.

The work that academic librarians do varies considerably. Some make acquisitions and manage one or more collections within a library. Some catalog and organize materials, while others develop electronic resources for library users. Still others spend most of their time in the reference department helping students and professors with their research. Many jobs include a mix of tasks.

A Ph.D. is far from a useless appendage in such settings; many academic library jobs require or prefer candidates to hold either the Ph.D. or an M.A in a nonlibrary field, or to have proficiency in one or more foreign languages. The bad news is that almost all librarian jobs also require a master's degree in library and information sciences or in library studies, which can be a drawback for people fresh out of two or five or eight years in graduate school.

On the other hand, such degrees can be earned in a short time, typically a year or two. And although the curriculum is demanding, its more practical orientation comes as a relief to some, as does the fact that a master's degree in library science, unlike most humanities degrees, unlocks the gate to a bustling job market.

But those who turn to library science expecting a placid retreat from the job crisis in the humanities and a refuge from modernity are in for an unpleasant surprise. As a profession, library science is undergoing rapid change as new technologies throw the utility of older practices into question. The shift is reflected in the increasing tendency of universities to change the name of their master's programs from library science to information sciences.

The duties of an academic librarian often include some teaching, although this usually takes the form of noncredit research seminars or guest presentations. Informal teaching and interaction with students is almost always part of the job, and prior instructional experience is a valuable asset on a candidate's résumé.

Besides the advantage of continued immersion in academic culture, jobs in campus libraries offer more-tangible benefits. Some librarians receive tuition benefits and research support. It's not unusual for them to get four weeks of vacation a year, in addition to holidays when the library is closed. While there is less flexibility than a professor's schedule typically offers, library work is a far cry from the corporate cubicle culture. And for many librarians, when they're off duty, they are truly off duty. They don't face stacks of papers to grade or the pressures of publish or perish.

Library-science careers are not without their drawbacks. Salaries tend to be low compared with those of similarly educated professionals, and even lower than some faculty salaries.

According to the American Association of University Professors, assistant professors at doctoral institutions earn an average annual salary of $52,671. By contrast, the mean salary for nonsupervisory librarians at universities is about $44,617, according to the American Library Association (A.L.A.). Beginning librarians (full-time, with master's degrees in library and information studies but without previous professional experience) earn mean salaries of about $37,517 at two-year colleges, $30,772 at four-year colleges, and $33,207 at universities.

Librarians in the top jobs at their institutions earn mean salaries of about $58,511 at two-year colleges, $54,102 at four-year colleges, and $78,988 at universities, according to the A.L.A.

More frustrating to some librarians than the salaries per se is the relative rigidity of salary schedules on many campuses. "The salary structure has little flexibility and rewards people more for hanging around than for innovating," says Mr. Askey.

Becoming a librarian by no means precludes one from being taken seriously as a scholar. Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, is a published and respected Renaissance-literature scholar. She spends her work days in a collection of rare and precious books and manuscripts that other scholars cross the continent to visit.

For many others, however, a drawback in moving from the professorial track to a library career can be a perceived loss in intellectual cachet.

"There wasn't much social support for choosing librarianship as a career," says Angela Napili, now a reference librarian at the Congressional Research Service, part of the Library of Congress. "My friends and family thought librarians shelved or stamped books all day, and the low status associated with librarianship made me uncomfortable."

After earning an undergraduate degree at Stanford University, Ms. Napili enrolled as a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Michigan. She reached A.B.D. status before switching to the university's School of Information to earn a master's degree.

"A few years into the Ph.D. program, I got over the need for other people's approval and decided to go into a field I'd enjoy more than being an academic," Ms. Napili says. "I realized that I didn't have to be a professional philosopher to be an intellectual and have an intellectually stimulating job."

Ms. Napili now spends her days answering reference questions and doing literature searches for analysts and Congressional staff members. "I love helping people find information, and I enjoy the research process," she says. "I learn something interesting every day, and I feel very patriotic about my organization's mission, which is to support an informed legislature."

Being among a select few to have borrowing privileges at the Library of Congress isn't bad, either.

For More Information on Academic Library Careers:

  • American Library Association Lists job ads, information on choosing a degree program, and links to publications.

  • Association of College and Research Libraries A division of the American Library Association, this group offers separate publications with job ads for academic librarians. Its Web site also has a section on issues specific to academic and research libraries, like the function of libraries in distance education and the faculty status of academic librarians.

  • Association of Research Libraries Features job listings and salary survey data broken down by member institution.

  • Special Libraries Association Job listings and some information about issues of concern to librarians at specialized collections.

  • American Society for Information Science and Technology Offers information about association membership and technology-oriented job listings.

  • The Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers, published by Gale Research and available in most academic and larger public libraries, is useful for getting an idea about the wide variety of special libraries.


Gwendolyn Bradley, a doctoral student in English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, writes occasionally about alternative careers for Ph.D.'s.