A Shortage of Academic Librarians

August 14, 2002

Academic libraries, experiencing a wave of retirements, are finding they have more job openings than qualified candidates to fill them.

The seller's market for academic librarians is a result of a few trends: the graying of the profession, the stagnant number of graduates from schools of library and information science, and the fact that many of those graduates shun academe to take higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

According to the American Library Association, more than 27,000 academic librarians work in the country's colleges, universities, community colleges, and research libraries. In 2000, the average age of the ALA's roughly 65,000 members was 49. And according to a 2000 survey of library directors by Library Journal, 40 percent of the respondents said they planned to retire in 9 years or less, and 68 percent in 14 years or less.

"Will we have the number of librarians we need who are qualified to step into these administrative positions?" asks Helen H. Spalding, associate director of libraries at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. "We are finding that a lot of employees are bringing different attitudes to this job. They're less willing to take on management positions with longer hours -- evaluating employees and spending their time cutting budgets and trying to recruit librarians who aren't there."

Twenty years ago the library association accredited 83 library and information-science programs in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, says Ann O'Neill, director of its accrediting office. Today it accredits 58. Many of the now-defunct library schools fell victim to retrenchment in academe.

The norm for academic librarians is to hold at least a master's degree from a library school. However, the number of master's-level graduates from ALA-accredited schools "remains relatively flat" -- about 5,000 a year -- "and fluctuates only a bit from year to year," the association says on its Web site.

Besides flat enrollment, another pressing issue is the lack of graduates entering the academic librarian profession. In March 2001, at the most recent conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries, only 68 job seekers applied for 216 academic-librarian jobs, says Lorelle R. Swader, director of the ALA's office for human resources, development, and recruitment. (The research libraries group, a division of the ALA, meets every other year.) Graduates of library schools can often land far more lucrative jobs -- earning $45,000 to $80,000 as "knowledge managers" for companies and nonprofit organizations -- instead of an entry-level job in an academic library, where salaries typically start in the low-to-mid $30's.

To attract more people to the profession and emphasize the need to raise salaries, the library associations have established a joint committee to improve the recruitment and retention of academic librarians. "We want to communicate some of the excitement and benefits of a library job," says Shirley K. Baker, a leader of the committee and dean of library services and vice chancellor for information technology at Washington University in St. Louis. "Working with really intelligent and highly educated colleagues is wonderful. I'd never give that up."

But Ms. Baker has had a hard time finding librarians who agree with her. To fill a position for a reference librarian with a subject specialty, she may have to advertise two or three times before she finds the right candidate. "Sometimes we're getting maybe 8 or 10 viable candidates," she says. "Sometimes fewer than that." And when the university can't pay librarians what they want, they leave. Last year, a reference librarian left to work at a community college where she would earn $40,000 a year with two months off in the summer, compared with her 12-month contract at Washington University, where she earned a salary in the low $30's. "We like to think a research university is a far more interesting place to work, but money is money," Ms. Baker says.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, it's not just a question of money but of too many retirements. Five librarians retired from Madison campus last month, bringing to eight the total number of retirements this year among the 129 employees in the 16 libraries in its general library system. Financially, the university can afford to fill most positions as they open and until very recently didn't have much trouble doing so, says Kenneth L. Frazier, director of the university's general library system. "We're now seeing that start to change," he says. "You can sense the shift. We're more likely to have a search that doesn't result in a hire."

In the past, it was common to receive about 60 applications for an entry-level opening. "Not all of the people would be well-qualified, but you would get 60 résumés," Mr. Frazier says. Now he might get from 6 to 16 applications for an entry-level position. When you don't have a large pool of candidates, he says, and when you're uncertain at the end of a search, "it's a difficult gamble ... to hire someone who doesn't seem like a good fit for the job." It's a risk he's unwilling to take.

That's one of the reasons that he's filled only a quarter of the positions created by retirements. (Mr. Frazier is holding six jobs open to generate salary savings and to reorganize job functions, he says, and is recruiting for three positions he hopes to fill within the next three or four month.) As of January 1, the entry-level salary for librarians at the university will be $36,475.

This year Mr. Frazier searched unsuccessfully for a university archivist and a director for the medical library. While he doesn't remember how many people applied for each position, he recalls that the pools were relatively small and that he received nowhere near 60 applications. "Sometimes an unsuccessful search means you haven't designed the position correctly," Mr. Frazier says. "More and more we'll be thinking of how to structure our positions to improve our chances of getting attractive candidates."

For instance, he says, it may not be necessary to require a candidate to have a library degree, he says. Maybe an advanced degree in a particular subject area would suffice. Academic libraries are accustomed to asking for a number of years of experience for a certain position, he says, but maybe if they structured the job differently, a candidate with less experience could work.

With all the retirements this year, "we're really facing the loss of very experienced people," Mr. Frazier says. The five who retired this month had each worked at the university an average of 30 years. While he laments losing more people than he's ever lost before, the upside is "when you have turnover you have opportunities to rethink the way you do things," Mr. Frazier says. "We try to look for opportunities to be more efficient and hire people with different skills." New recruits, for example, are often more comfortable with technology, he says.

Although Jack A. Siggins, the university librarian at the George Washington University, has not had much trouble getting applicants for entry-level jobs -- roughly 120 people applied for one such opening last year -- he, too, has been alarmed by the difficulties he has had hiring librarians with more specialized skills.

In the past 18 months, he has held three national searches for a serials librarian. In each case, only two or three people applied. He's still looking to fill the position. Two months into his search for an acquisitions librarian -- what he refers to as essentially a "department head" who oversees all the ordering, receiving, and shelving of everything in the library's collection -- Mr. Siggins has received only two or three applications. But there is some good news. After a second national search for an electronic instructional coordinator, he finally hired one of the five candidates.

Before libraries moved to electronic processing of serials and books in the last 5 to 10 years, "a lot of it was very labor intensive," Mr. Siggins says. People in charge of ordering items for the library's collection developed skills in that area and would be promoted. "So when you sent out an ad for a head of serials you would have a pretty good pool," he says.

But with the increasing trend toward electronic processing, where many libraries outsource the ordering of books so publishers can catalog and label them before they hit the library, a librarian has only to check a book's record to see if it has already been cataloged nationally and then put it on the shelf. "This means the pool of people who would normally go up the ladder and get more experience and want to move into higher levels of responsibility are just not there," Mr. Siggins says.

Academic librarians fear that students will suffer the most from the recruiting problems in the profession. "With the Internet dominating a lot of things, including students' search for information, there's more of a need than ever for information library assistance," says Sarah L. Cron, dean of academic-information services and director of Kent library at Southeast Missouri State University. "It's not just, Can you find anything on the Internet, but, Can you find the good stuff, things appropriate for research papers? Anybody can put anything on the Internet. That does not make it truth."

Amid the mass of information available today, she says, it is the librarians and information specialists who "know how to organize it, find it, and evaluate the likelihood of its quality." For students, the challenge increasingly will be finding a librarian who can help them do this.