|Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
|Vol. 22, No. 1||September 2001|
Recently CNN expressed their concern about the continuing need for reference librarians in the digital age with this admonition:
With seemingly infinite research data at the fingertips of everybody linked to the Internet, you might think reference librarians are doomed to go the route of door-to-door salesman and elevator operators. Instead many Internet users have found the information glut daunting and confusing. And frequently, it’s a reference librarian they turn to [to] make sense of it. Larry Keller, CNN.com/career, 11/28/00
Although this is true, academic libraries are having a great deal of difficulty filling vacant positions at the professional, paraprofessional, and other support staff levels. Even the pool for University Librarians/Directors is getting smaller and smaller. Many directors are retiring earlier—often in their mid-fifties. Applicant pools often consist of only three or four people, none of whom necessarily has all the qualifications asked for in a position description. Graduate library/information science schools cannot fill all of the vacancies now occurring in libraries. Academic libraries attract only about 30 percent of those graduates.1 Corporate salaries are a motivating factor for graduates to seek jobs elsewhere. Clearly an academic library’s ability to attract and retain quality personnel in leadership and general library staff positions is declining. This is partially due to an aging library population content with being a part of a service profession, compared with the new professionals (often faced with massive debt once they graduate) who are less service oriented. These young people are attracted by positions in a corporate world with greater opportunities to move up the ladder faster, with greater salaries and benefits, and where there are new challenges and opportunities in the knowledge-based economy.
This is not a new topic. It has been discussed at Association of Research Libraries program and discussion sessions, at editorial advisory board meetings, and it is a topic that university librarians often bring up in conversations with each other and within other meetings. There is a general consensus that staffing issues related to recruitment and retention of library personnel is not something limited to any one University Library, but a problem that all face. It has both an immediate and a potential long-term impact for all academic libraries and their parent campuses.
Librarians are an integral part of learning, teaching, and research. They are perhaps the most important component for development of the lifelong learning and knowledge management skills needed for everyone’s future. When vacancies abound, turnover rates are high, and morale is low, the results are costly in lowered productivity and efficiency; in meeting library user needs and demands; and ability to perform at expected levels. When vacant positions are filled with personnel without the right qualifications for routine and new workloads, backlogs develop, and time and capacity for strategic planning suffers which impacts all parts of the institution.
Librarians are key information technology specialists, often with more expertise and experience in a broader context than their counterparts in the computer and information technology field. Librarians, with their subject expertise, graduate degrees, and their educational orientation, are far better prepared for the new knowledge-based business world. This preparation must be recognized and rewarded through adjustments in salaries, benefits, and prestige by academic institutions, or we will lose even more new graduates to fields outside of librarianship—a loss to the university and the higher education field.
Library staffing is a particularly complex issue with many questions and no easy answers. Some of the solutions will reflect changes in society at large, some will be a result of changes in the profession, and some, as with politics, will be local. This article will raise some questions and some potential solutions.
Elements of the Problem
Turnover. There is a high rate of turnover in many library positions. This is costly to the institution, requiring a huge investment in recruitment, and time, energy, and training expended by existing staff to bring new staff up to speed. Turnover in academic libraries ranges from 13 to 45 percent, depending on geography and competition. Many recruits stay for only a short time. After two to three years, having gained a higher level of experience, they often take lateral or promotional positions at other libraries or in the corporate world. Their salary increases in such transfers may range from $10,000 to well over $20,000. Faculty status or equivalency does not seem to carry as much significance as it once did, nor does the prestige or rank of an institution seem to outweigh the salary consideration.
Burn-out. Librarians have taken on additional responsibilities in evolving technologies, development activities, outsourcing projects to deal with backlogs, and increased consortial and community partnerships. At the same time they have retained a majority of their traditional duties. As turnover increases and positions remain unfilled, the quality of services offered can be detrimentally affected. As the remaining personnel absorb additional duties of vacant positions, staff morale suffers and staff members burn out at a faster rate. With this pressure placed on limited library staff, the University—faculty, as well as students—suffers. Backlogs in work develop in cataloging, processing, re-shelving, database input and maintenance, while speed and quality of service also deteriorate. This leaves little or no time for needed experimentation and innovation within our libraries, particularly with new services and resources, changing intellectual property rights and scholarly communication, copyright and fair use issues, and development of new initiatives to meet evolving classroom and research needs.
Hours. Systems and technology personnel throughout the university, including within the library, often prefer working during late night hours. Most librarians do not. Our users, however, would like 24/7 access. We must listen to them and work out ways to provide this service.
Salaries. Librarianship, like the teaching profession, is female-dominated. Because of this, salaries have been historically low, with many staff undervalued and underpaid. Some libraries are filling new positions with male counterparts, paid at higher levels. This is especially true with positions that attract more male than female applicants, e.g., systems and technology or director positions. In addition, salary compression occurs as new recruits negotiate higher salaries than those in similar existing positions do.
Personnel costs require the greatest portion of the University and the libraries’ budget. But quality personnel are difficult to recruit and retain if not compensated appropriately.
Diversity. Trying to align the diversity of the staff with the diversity of the student population is a challenge for all departments on campus; the library is no exception. DeEtta Jones points out that "Library professionals know that diversity invigorates our learning environments, our economy, and our culture...[but] ‘How do we attract a talented and diverse candidate pool given the demographic profile of our location?’ Libraries are growing increasingly sensitive to diverse customer needs and staff representation…racial and ethnic minority populations will account for nearly 90 percent of the total growth in the U.S. population from 1995 to 2050…This trend is important to understand when recruiting diverse staff; and many libraries have already felt the tension of trying to recruit minorities to geographic locations that are considered to have little racial and ethnic diversity."2 This is a crucial problem for all libraries whether rural or urban.
Evolving needs. At the same time libraries are looking to diversify their staff ethnically, they are also diversifying in terms of academic and experiential background. In order to fill positions in areas such as systems, marketing and public relations, and development, more libraries are hiring people from outside the library profession. Salaries in these fields are usually higher than in libraries and the expertise comes at a price. Newcomers in these positions may not have an academic degree, much less the qualifications required of librarians, but their specialized skills are needed if the library intends to remain a vibrant competitor in the information business.
Outside competition. While libraries have begun hiring from outside the library profession, corporate organizations have been busy hiring from within the information profession. Businesses have found the skills of MLS graduates to be very beneficial to their companies and newly degreed librarians/information specialists have found the salaries offered in the corporate work to be very lucrative. Lucy Lettis, director of business information services at Arthur Andersen, a consulting firm in New York, says being a librarian in a corporate setting runs the gamut from consulting to preparing research for projects to answering immediate questions.3 In the same article, John Crosby of the Special Libraries Association says, [Companies] want to know how to manage and access information on their desktops. They need individuals who can cull through the information and help them make informed decisions to stay competitive.4 Librarians fill such positions better than any other professional does.
With only 12 to 15 percent of library school graduates coming into academic libraries, the number going into the private sector or business world has increased, thus, creating real competition outside of academe for librarian recruitment and/or retention.
Libraries are taking a number of different steps to try to alleviate this shortage of staff. Some plans are more creative than others, some are more controversial. Some ideas are being implemented; others are still just being talked about. All have certain advantages and disadvantages.
Interns. Some libraries hire library school student interns. Institutions may do this because of a commitment to the future of the profession, while others hope these interns will be interested in a permanent librarian position in that library after they graduate. Most academic librarians do not believe that hiring interns on a temporary basis is a resolution to the inadequate pools of librarian applications. However, as fewer librarians are moving into academic librarian positions, internship and residency programs are growing. Unions must see intern programs as a promise, not a threat. Interns hired into permanent positions will become new collective bargaining unit members.
Fellowship programs. Some have suggested establishing fellowship programs by hiring from subject fields/disciplines outside of librarianship. The new employee would work in the library, but bridge the differences between the library and the discipline. Library-educated, as well as non-library-educated, personnel could offer subject specific instruction. Personnel with different expertise than library staff in instructional hardware and software can provide enriched liaisons and enhanced relationships between the libraries and the teaching departments.
Undergraduate library degrees. There are mixed reactions to a recent move back to undergraduate library degree programs. Some welcome them, feeling that focused preparation is what is needed for support staff positions. Others would prefer hiring someone with no library or higher education degree in order to contain personnel costs. Still others contend that a higher education degree is not required for certain library positions because of the changing nature of some library work.
Non-degreed hires. Similar to the controversy on many campuses regarding adjunct faculty, there is disagreement among professionals about hiring non-librarians for some of these newer positions. Some feel they should not be hired, but others see this in a positive light-new experience and perceptions for problem resolution and innovation come to the institution. Similar conflicts arise with library support staff who are now performing tasks once considered librarian duties, but at a much reduced salary than when librarians were doing the same work. Every position in a library is important, although outdated position descriptions need to be revised for new roles and responsibilities. This requires cooperation between Human Resources, unions, and libraries.
Library administrators must recognize that there are many young people who are self-taught in the Information Technology (IT) and Information Systems areas with no advanced degree in computing or librarianship and that some libraries have done well by hiring certified people in these areas. Persons with technical school training could handle those systems operations that are primarily routine maintenance and upgrading of equipment. A position in a university library might be attractive for that person because of the tuition benefits as well as the opportunity for a broad range of experience.
Recruit disillusioned from corporate world. There is a sense that some of the librarians who have moved outside of the academic world are becoming disillusioned with the business environment and want to return to a more intellectual, educationally oriented environment where the focus is not on continually increasing production and revenue. The business world may pay better salaries, but the academic world does have some benefits not offered by businesses, e.g., tuition free courses for employees and more importantly, their families. It remains to be seen if these librarians will, or can, return to academic librarian positions when their resumes and positions do not demonstrate experience or expertise in academe. This is another area where librarians and Human Resources departments must be flexible. Previous corporate experiences can help libraries build connections with potential new partners or sources of funding. Corporate librarians may also bring some ideas for productivity to libraries unused to such pressures.
Create a culture of innovation. Both libraries and the private sector need more IT professionals than ever before—with special abilities in the rapidly evolving technological environment. Many private sector positions are far more technologically sophisticated than ones in colleges and universities. Depending on the size of the company, they may be able to make rapid change that is not as easily done in the more traditional university. Universities can compete here by working to change their culture and becoming more flexible and adaptable. An investment in staff development could pay big dividends.
Town and Gown Relations. Since community relations are currently a top priority with many university administrations, they would do themselves a favor by taking advantage of the service orientation of librarians. Librarians are excellent resources for developing and enhancing partnerships with K-12 schools and other community organizations. Through local professional groups, librarians frequently have contacts in these institutions and organizations. The service aspect of their chosen profession motivates many librarians and being part of these new projects could help with the burnout problem and contribute to developing a culture of innovation.
Personnel Policies. It costs more to hire a successor than to retain existing staff. Libraries must participate in the pool of "market funds," as schools and colleges do, to retain staff who are motivated, energetic, and willing to be adaptable and flexible. Excellent professional development opportunities and retention benefits must be offered so we can keep our best staff. Some libraries are offering to pay for the time and tuition of their best support staff to return to school for an accredited library degree, or a degree program in another field that teaches skills needed by the library. Higher education institutions could do more to take advantage of skills of existing staff by increasing mini-courses and workshops offered by Human Resources departments, changing policies that place barriers to daytime classes, and developing policies that encourage staff to take courses which will improve their skills for their position. It is also critical that the process of filling vacancies be speeded up so good candidates are not lost while meaningless red tape is spun.
What the University Administration Can Do to Help
Libraries need support from University administrators to place pressure on Human Resources offices to speed up the process of filling positions within the university; revising or changing position titles, duties, and responsibilities in a rapid and timely fashion; and improving staff development opportunities for the entire campus. University Human Resources offices must become partners with university administrators and university librarians in seeking creative solutions to problems of supply, remuneration, and creative recruiting.
Libraries need support from administrators during collective bargaining negotiations to ensure the library’s ability to change position descriptions, evaluate processes, and initiate new programs such as internships and fellowships can be easily implemented.
Special market salary adjustment funds to help retain the best and the brightest personnel are available to schools and colleges, but frequently not to the library. The library needs to have access to these pools as well. Librarians are partners in the educational process. If campus user education programs are to be increased, goals of information literacy and lifelong learning capability are to be achieved, then salaries for librarians must reflect these critical responsibilities. Significant merit pools for librarians could be even more important than across-the-board increases. Frequently, base salaries and merit pools for faculty are considerably higher than those for librarians are, even though expectations for teaching and research are similar.
University administration could also help by making library staffing a priority for external fundraising to endow key positions and/or fund temporary, part-time help, interns, and fellows.
Universities and colleges have already entered an age of dynamic and perhaps discontinuous change spurred by the technological revolution. It is transforming the world of information and its delivery. Librarians have the training and expertise to play a valuable role, but find it difficult to do so when libraries are so short staffed, new staff is hard to find, or being recruited away by higher-paying corporate jobs, and the overloaded work environment is creating rapid burnout. As this article has explored, many libraries are already taking innovative actions to accommodate staff shortages and changes, but most will also need the help of their parent institution to fulfill their potential.
—The authors are from Temple University Library, Philadelphia. Ivy Bayard is Head of Administrative Services, email:email@example.com Carol Lang is Assistant to the University Librarian, email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Maureen Pastine is University Librarian, email: email@example.com
1Vicki L. Gregory and Sonia Ramirez Wohlmuth, "Placements & Salaries 1999: Better Pay, More Jobs" Library Journal, October 15, 2000.
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last modified: Sept 2001
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