Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Larry Hardesty, Austin College; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
 
Vol. 24, No. 1 September 2003


Recruiting and Retaining Academic Librarians:
A Calm Before the Storm?

by Larry Hardesty

The objective of Library Issues is to bring important library concerns to the attention of faculty and academic administrators. While the volatility of the library job market certainly concerns library administrators, its immediacy is less apparent to those outside the library. The inability to attract qualified professionals into the academic library could have a deleterious impact on the library’s ability to contribute to campus programs to ensure that students become information literate or fluent in information resources. Without preparation for the coming wave of retirements and influx of newcomers to the profession, the stability, tradition of service, and ability of academic libraries to provide technological leadership are also in jeopardy.—Editor

 

Across my desk recently came two articles. One said, “At present there are too few people applying for positions in academic libraries to always ensure quality application pools and the successful filling of positions on the first attempt.”1 The other said, “[T]he shortage of librarians is slowly turning into a shortage of jobs.”2 So which is it—do we have a shortage of academic librarians or a shortage of jobs? What impact does the current situation have on recruiting new librarians and retaining experienced librarians? What challenges and opportunities are presented to the academy in the current job market for academic librarians?

During the past forty years academic librarianship has gone through several periods during which an imbalance existed between the number of positions open and the number of qualified candidates ready to fill these positions. In times of shortages, academic libraries have not been able to attract sufficient numbers of qualified candidates; in times of surplus, academic libraries have lost qualified individuals to other professions. As academic libraries have become increasingly complex organizations serving escalating expectations through a growing variety of formats and services, employing qualified individuals to meet institutional needs has become extremely critical.

Current Situation

The current employment situation for academic librarians is the most perplexing and challenging in recent memory. During the 1980s and early 1990s academic library administrators often reported applicant pools of 30, 40, or more for many librarian positions. This began to change, however, by the late 1990s, as evidenced by such anecdotal information from college library directors:

To fill a professional position, we now have to plan on at least two rounds of advertising and six months before the new hire is on the job. The overall level of talent (in my view) is quite shallow. We see only a very occasional applicant with a strong undergraduate record. [college library director—Mid-Atlantic area]

The first two years we had around 30 applicants for each position. Now I feel fortunate if I have a dozen. I have three failed searches. I place job ads in the Chronicle [of Higher Education], College & Research Libraries News, minority recruitment locations, library schools, list servs, other online job placement services and still only get a few applications. And of those applying, usually only half actually meet minimum qualifications. If I get three good candidates, I feel successful!! [college library director—Midwest].

Failed Searches. At about the same time I began to discover an increasing number of failed searches for college library directors. Each year as director of the College Library Directors’ Mentor Program, I contact first-year college library directors to inform them about the program. During the fall of 1999, I first became aware of a large number of failed college library director searches—more than a dozen. No doubt each institution had expended a great deal of time and money in their searches only to be disappointed with the results.

The next year I discovered about a dozen college libraries that began the academic year without a permanent director in place—some with interim directors in their second or even third years. One has to wonder if the role of the library on these campuses suffered during extended times of interim directors. Were major decisions relating to buildings, automation, staff, and acquisition of resources deferred pending the employment of a suitable permanent director? This certainly would be understandable since interim directors often continue with their previous responsibilities in addition to their new responsibilities. What impact does this have on the morale of the library staff and on the ability of the library to provide needed service to the institution?

During the past three years I started receiving telephone calls from executive search firms employed by some of the more elite liberal arts colleges to help them find library directors. In the past, these same institutions probably had to exert little effort to recruit a library director from numerous applications. Obviously something had happened, but what?

Aging of Librarians. One of the major causes of the changes is the aging of academic librarians. They are older than professionals in all but a handful of comparable professions, concluded Stanley J. Wilder in his 1995 study of demographics of Association of Research Libraries (ARL) librarians.3 He attributed this to the low rates of hiring in recent years, the lack of mobility among experienced librarians that reduces the opportunities for younger people, and the unusually high age of library and information studies students relative to those in other professional programs.

Currently, more individuals enter library and information science graduate programs in their thirties, forties, and beyond than in their twenties, making the average entry age well into the thirties.

Wilder estimated that 16 percent of ARL librarians were expected to retire between 2000 and 2005, but that this would increase to 24 percent between 2005 and 2010. He concluded, “the projected movement of the age curve is like a wave crashing on the shore.”4 Over the next few years academic libraries will lose through retirements a significant portion of their most experienced librarians.

Jobs Outnumber Applicants. Whatever the underlying reasons (retirements, low salaries, competition from other professions, deaths), in the late 1990s the job situation for librarians changed. Around 1997-1998, the library positions advertised began to outnumber job seekers in a significant way. By 2002, an Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) task force identified recruitment, education, and retention as among the top issues facing academic libraries. Articles also began appearing in literature both within and outside the profession regarding the shortage of librarians.

This serious shortage of qualified librarians has been further complicated by further developments. For the past several decades job seekers typically outnumbered jobs advertised at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual and Midwinter conferences. In 1997-1998, however, reflecting the shortage of academic librarians, the number of positions being advertised began to outnumber the number of job seekers. Then, to the surprise of many, at the ALA Midwinter Conference in January 2002, the situation changed back and has continued with even more dramatic differences through more recent conferences. Colleagues have begun reporting a marked increase in the number of candidates for recent openings—particularly at the entry levels.

The Tide Turns. What has happened is that in a relatively short period of time the economy has gone south, and this has had a considerable impact on the academic libraries. With the downturn of the economy came job freezes and even abolishing of jobs. An associate director of a large research library recently told me that her library had to reduce its budget by a million dollars and much of it would have to come from personnel cuts. Those nearing retirements examined their retirement portfolios and many probably decided to temporarily defer their retirements.

Another phenomenon occurred when library school enrollments increased dramatically. Enrollments at ALA-accredited master’s programs grew a modest 2 percent from 1990 to 1999. Fall 2001 enrollments, however, began growing at a faster rate. A library school dean told me recently, “I bet there are more students in professional library master’s programs today than ever before. Every school I know is thriving.”

Why is this Happening? The situation is readily explained since, as a library school placement officer told me, “when the economy is tight, people go to graduate school.” Library school deans reported accepting 50 percent or less applicants and frequently commented on the improved quality of recent applications. One library school faculty member observed to me, “We have lots of very good, very able, very bright students.” She further added, “who are looking for good jobs.”

With the end of the 2002-2003 academic year, we do have an unusually large cohort of graduating students who are looking for those “good” jobs. Are they finding these good jobs? “Clearly the market has been tightened by the economy,” as one library school placement director typically commented to me. Some library school deans reported fewer students getting jobs before graduation and students finding it taking longer to secure positions. One library school reported canceling a job fair because of a low response from potential employers and noted that students are competing with 50 to 70 other applicants in each of their searches.

The Dilemma

For different reasons, the writers of both articles I cited at the beginning of this piece are correct in their observations. There appears to be a growing shortage of jobs for new librarians in the currently depressed economy. At the same time, academic libraries are experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants for positions requiring experience. What “storm“ can we expect from this situation?

The answer, to a large degree, depends on the local situation. How many librarians are approaching retirement age? What experience and skills will be lost when they retire? Who will replace the reference librarian who has been working with X department for twenty tears, and knows the curriculum and the faculty members of that department like the back of her hand? Who will replace the collection development librarian who has a generation of experience and somehow always manages to stay successfully ahead of a changing curriculum in acquiring needed materials and databases? Who will replace the director who through years of experience always seems to get the most out of the budget and find money somewhere to do what is needed? What happens if they all retire within two or three years of each other? Are plans being made to find and develop their replacements? Are plans being made for the needed aggressive recruiting? Are appropriate professional development and mentoring programs available to help their replacements successfully assume more responsibilities?

If the economy remains down and recovers only slowly, we may lose many of the bright recent graduates as they give up seeking academic library positions and look elsewhere for employment. If the economy improves quickly, library school enrollments may drop precipitously to the levels of a few years ago, and we will return to the situation of shortages of qualified applicants for beginning positions.

Also, if the economy dramatically improves in a short time, we may see experienced academic librarians retire in droves. Whether the economy improves or not, however, people will eventually retire. As experienced academic librarians begin to retire in increasingly large numbers, particularly if a cohort delays a year or two and retires at 66 or 67, along with those individuals reaching age 65 (or younger since many do retire early) that year, the “crashing wave“ that Wilder described may more aptly resemble a tsunami. Unless something else is done, whatever happens to the economy, the academy may suffer from losing good academic librarians at both ends of their careers—with the possibility of negative results already mentioned.

What can be done? This spring when I asked some library directors and library school deans their assessment of the current recruiting and retention environment, they responded with some common themes.

Slowness of searches. Both library school faculty and library directors commented on the typical slowness of academic searches. While academic library searches, typically following the faculty model, may take months, library school faculty reported public libraries and others who fly representatives to library schools and make offers on site.

Too many credentials needed. A couple of library school faculty members reported to me a common student perception that academic libraries, as compared to other types of libraries, demand too many credentials and too much experience. Library directors typically responded that attitude, an ability to work well with others, and a willingness to learn are key factors to success. Some also believed that requirements for PhDs, second masters, and foreign language ability (often the result of classroom faculty members serving on search committees) frequently eliminate otherwise good candidates.

Lack of training/development opportunities. However, if academic libraries are to hire inexperienced individuals with only entry-level credentials, several practitioners point out the need for more development and training opportunities for these individuals. In fact, they stressed this need for both experienced, as well as beginning, librarians in this time of rapidly changing developments.

As librarians have become increasingly sophisticated users of technology, they have developed an understanding of the importance of proper development and maintenance of that technology. Those who use this technology, however, seldom receive equal attention and resources in developing and maintaining their skills.

While it may seem obvious that institutions must invest in the library staff to keep them up-to-date, several of my colleagues commented on the difficulty of getting their institutions’ administrators to understand the complexity of library responsibilities and skills needed when conducting searches to fill vacancies.

Need for competitive salaries. Perhaps most important (and stated most often by fellow library directors) is the view that “salary is going to make a difference.“ One library director observed, “It is going to cost more to replace many of my librarians than we are currently paying existing staff. The competition outside of academia seems to be driving up salaries and we are not as competitive as we should be.“ Several reported losing promising candidates to higher paid positions both in other types of libraries and to other professions.

They also reported in this economically difficult time that applicants are increasingly aware of the financial health of an institution, such as hiring freezes, layoffs, and big budget cuts. Some had discovered candidates deciding to avoid institutions with potentially serious economic difficulties.

Other Conditions. Some library school deans reported that potential library school students often question why they should enroll in an MLS program when salaries for students in the information science track, sometimes with only an undergraduate degree, at the same school get jobs starting at $10,000 or higher than first-year MLS degree holders receive. Beginning salaries for students in the information science track may approach or exceed the salary in some fields of a newly-hired assistant professor with a Ph.D.

The inadequate pay for librarians in all venues (public, school, academic, etc.) is receiving increased attention within the library profession. To some, this may seem at times not necessary (nor possible given the state of the economy). Salary typically has not been the most important factor in attracting individuals to librarianship. Individuals often report coming to and remaining in librarianship for a variety of factors not related to monetary compensation. Nevertheless, research clearly shows a relationship between low salaries and shortages of librarians. Therefore, to shortchange individuals hoping they will stay when the economy improves is an ill-conceived strategy that does not serve anyone in the long term.

Final Thoughts

We have many warning signs that a major recruitment and retention storm does loom on the horizon. We know that a large percentage of experienced academic librarians will reach retirement age within the next few years, and academic institutions could lose much of the senior leadership of the academic librarian profession. Attracting and retaining experienced academic librarians will become increasingly challenging.

At the same time, we know that library schools are graduating unusually large numbers of very bright and talented individuals, often with considerable work and life experience, who are seeking to enter the profession. We may lose them also if we do not find a way to provide opportunities for them and to assist them so they can successfully assume increased responsibilities early in their careers. Academic institutions need to provide increased professional development opportunities for all academic librarians, but particularly for less experienced librarians attempting to fill the void left by retiring experienced librarians.

Tenure, as the old academic joke goes, is the decision with whom you will be eating lunch for the next 20 years. In practice, however, for both the classroom and the library, the hiring decision is often that decision. More than one chief academic officer, department chair, and library director has had to live for decades with an ill-advised hiring decision hastily made in the expediency of the moment. We need to heed the warning signs of the current situation and to act accordingly. To ignore them could have a deleterious impact on campus.—Larry Hardesty is College Librarian, Austin College, Sherman, TX. lhardesty@austincollege.edu

References

1Joe A. Hewitt, Barbara B. Moran, Mari E. Marsh, "Finding Our Replacements: One Institution’s Approach to Recruiting Academic Librarians: portal: Libraries and the Academy 3 (April 2003): 179.

2John N. Berry III, "LIS Recruiting: Does it Make the Grade?" Library Journal, May 1, 2003: 41.

3Stanley Wilder, The Age Demographics of Academic Librarians: A Profession Apart: A Report Based on Data from the ARL Annual Salary Survey (Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, 1995). An online summary is available at http://arl.cni.org/arl/proceedings/127/wilder.html.

4Ibid.

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last modified: September 2003

 

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