Thursday, April 12, 2012

Library School: Yay or Nay?

One of the questions I was asking about the midwinter conference was this:

Would you recommend someone go to library school (masters) right now?
(And to be clear I meant to the masters in library science programs, not the undergraduate programs. Don't even bother with those.)

A few (very few) people gave unequivocal yeses, a similar few said no, most like me said a very hesitant "maybe". I feel like as a profession we're talking about this some, but not enough. There are a ton of blogs (each word is a separate link and I'm only linking a small percentage) and articles about the issue for aspiring attorneys. This is my contribution to the discussion on the library science level.

Let's break this down to the three answers.

YES! Go!
Being a librarian is awesome. More librarians I know (in a very anecdotal unscientific way) are happier with their jobs than your typical white collar cube dweller. A librarian can be a fairly versatile degree with a number of fields to choose from during and upon completion. And if you have a passion for it, then yes, it is an amazingly rewarding field. I love my job. Contrary to what the Beatles say though you need more than love. And I was lucky in that I finished library school in 2006, and switched systems in early 2008 before the huge crashes.

And that leads us to:

NO! Don't go! You'll be poor!
Librarians never made tons of money. But current librarian unemployment rates are staggering. And libraries (public, academic, school, all types) are being cut nation-wide. That means there are a lot of experienced librarians thrust into the job market to compete with newly minted library grads.

A recent study showed that library science had the fourth highest unemployment rate out of nearly 173 majors. It's a bit deceiving of a study as this blog entry explains. (Basically it boils down to those undergraduate degrees in library science. Don't get them. You need a master's degree for professional work. Get a bachelor's in an unrelated field so you have more skills to bring to the table.)

In the searches I have been involved with, I have seen some very, wildly, overqualified candidates for entry level positions. And we've all heard tales of library positions with 150 candidates. It's a big scary world out there. And it can be VERY hard to find a job. Not impossible, but very hard. So think about that before you go to library school.

A lot of the people I know who finished library school with me in 2006 are still sitting in their entry level jobs. Because about 3 years in, when everyone should have been going for the next level position was 2009, well into the recession. (For the sake of argument, I remember the recession getting into full swing in late 2008, go with me here.) A lot of libraries fire on seniority (mine included) and then shuffle the remaining people into the remaining positions. So my friends are staying where they have enough seniority built up to protect themselves. Or they're academic librarians and are staying because they know what the budget clime is at their current institution and can't risk jumping ship to a potentially worse situation. So they're not vacating (voluntarily) those entry level positions making the competition for the entry level positions that do open up that much harder for a new grad.

That's a lot of reasons NOT to go to library school. And that would be my answer to most people. However, for a few people I would say...

Let's start with: why do you want to go to library school? Is it because you love books? You can't see us but every seasoned librarian just rolled their eyes. I've heard professors complain about how many library school application essays start with some variation of that sentiment. Very little of my job is about books, but a lot of my job is about people. I love people. I love connecting people with the information or book they need. I also really love organizing (and reorganizing) things (sooner or later I'm going to figure out the perfect way to store plastic food containers). Those are better reasons to be a librarian. But they're not enough if you can't get a job.

Do you have any real world library experience? Because that person who spent five years being a clerk in a library is going to get hired before that person with the masters in English literature (at least in a public library). Previous library experience proves that you know what this job entails, you can do it, and I don't have to train you on everything. Looking at two newly minted library school grads, I'll choose the one with the real world experiences 9 times out of 10. If nothing else, you MUST do an internship during your schooling. I don't care if your library program requires it, if you don't have any experience, find or create one on your own.

Do you have another specialty? A lot of non-public librarian positions require some sort of other specialty. I understand law librarians are still in high demand, but most places want you to also have a J.D. An academic librarian with a second masters will have an easier time finding a subject specialist position, bonus points if it is a science/technical/math masters. Medical librarians are also in demand, especially if you have a medical background. (I know a former nurse who was physically unable to be a nurse, got an MLS, and became a killer medical librarian at a major hospital).

What other skills do you have? Some of my other skills are wishy washy: I play guitar (only helpful at storytime); I speak French (might be more useful if I were Canadian). Others of my skills are a lot more marketable (fluent in sign language, a TON of experience with youth). Skills that I know libraries are looking for (and often tip the balance when considering otherwise equal candidates): graphic design (a lot of PR & flier design is done by librarians); computer programming skills, web skills (building & designing websites); relevant foreign languages (not French, Spanish in a lot of the country, but I'd be more interested in Hmong). Relevant non-profit work can also help since more libraries are using partnerships to expand what we can do. There are more special skills, but those are the ones that stick out to me. And whatever subset of librarianship you go into will have its own special needs. (When I was a youth librarian it was very helpful that I am an avid crafter.)

Can you move? Sometimes life ties you down to an area, but if you can move, you'll have more choices. Be aware that many libraries no longer have the ability to offer any moving assistance.

So there you have it. I can not unequivocally tell you to go to library school for your master's degree. It isn't the absolute worst idea in the world, but I would think long and hard about it. The strongest answer I can give you is maybe, if you have experience, other skills to bring to the table.

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