— Elizabeth Lieutenant (@LizLieutenant) December 3, 2013
The famous graph. Alright, it’s not exactly famous, but when you’re a first semester library school student who’s been using Twitter for less than a year and your tweet is retweeted by some very influential Libraryland (and beyond) people with thousands of followers, it feels pretty cool. Jacob Berg‘s retweet thread inspired a very interesting conversation, Andy Woodworth included it in his list of library-land grievances, and Courtney Young (yes, THE President-Elect of ALA) asked me for the graph’s citation. To feel that I’m, in my own small way, participating in the professional discourse on librarianship that taking place in social media is awesome!
For those of you who are interested in knowing the origins of “the graph,” it’s from an ALISE statistical report that I used in one of my research papers for library school. ( Wallace, D. P. (Ed.). (2012). Library and Information Science Education Statistical Report 2012. Chicago, IL: Association for Library and Information Science Education. ) The report is filled with all types of data on LIS programs in the US and Canada: enrollment rates, demographics, course formats, faculty salaries, institutional support, you name it, it’s in there. I used some of the data they collected on course offerings in e-learning assisted formats for one of my final research papers, which focused on embedded librarianship in online learning environments. I didn’t even touch on enrollment rates in my paper, but when I saw how sharply “the graph” ticked up starting in 2000, I was shocked. As a new student who did her research before applying to library school, I knew about the over-saturated post-MLIS job market, the low standards for admission to LIS programs, and the fact that while the degree itself is a requirement, work experience is what really matters to hiring managers. But to have “the graph” in front of my very own eyes and see for myself an increase in LIS program enrollment rates of close to 50% in 13 years, when “Librarian” job rates are stagnant, that was quite something. I am a unique little snowflake. Knowing that I’ll be one of approximately nine thousand yearly future grads is more than a bit overwhelming and intimidating. For more on this issue, please read Lauren Dodd Hall‘s reflections on crunching the enrollment rate numbers for ALISE’s 2009 report while working on her MLIS.
I’ve heard that “the graph” doesn’t matter, that having so many new LIS grads is fine because there are so many opportunities outside of the library. I have to disagree with that sentiment, not because there aren’t opportunities outside of libraries, but because there are still too many grads and not enough traditional jobs in libraries. Yes, there are plenty of library school students who have no interest in working in a “Library” and that’s fantastic! Our profession needs to look beyond being defined by the place we work (most often places starting-with-a-capital-L “Library”), but those of us who have an expansive and inclusive outlook on our place in the world certainly don’t account for the overwhelming increase in LIS enrollment rates. Not every LIS student will end up working in UX or for a vendor or go off and become an independent information professional. Heck, some LIS students don’t even know that those opportunities exist! Even if they did, there are still a lot of students who wouldn’t be interested in working anywhere outside of an academic library or a behind-closed-doors nook full of materials waiting to be accessioned. If that’s your passion, that’s great! Do what you love and be awesome at it, but don’t begrudge not having a job when every statistic out there points to how difficult it is to have a career in librarianship. Remember: working for the library does not make you a bad person, but thinking that your degree will only allow you to work in a library is bad.
Now… onto the question of how we go about fixing the issue illustrated in “the graph.” I’m honestly not sure. As an LIS student, I have very little say in how faculty and academic institutions should run their programs. As a graduate student who has a non-traditional academic background, I have very little knowledge of how the ivory-towered world of academia operates. I am, of course, aware of rising tuition costs and even faster-growing student loan rates. When coupled with increasing enrollment rates and a decrease in tenure-track positions, you have one very confused academic foreigner on your hands. What can I do to fix this issue? Very little, outside of what I can do to help myself. Keeping abreast of current events that affect the profession (thank you Twitter) is one. Getting involved in professional and student organizations, including ALA & SLA, is another. Ensuring that I seize whatever opportunities are made available to me, even if they put me outside of my comfort zone, has been ridiculously helpful on both a personal and professional level. Working in a library has been hands-down the best thing I can do to prepare myself for the “real” job hunt that is to come. Finally, discussing my experiences with other students, and learning from them (both the good and the bad), has been one of the most beneficial things about my program.
I can sadly say that there are a few (fortunately very few) of my fellow LIS students who have not idea what they’re getting themselves into. They’re not prepared for the rigorous coursework required, they’re ignorant of the basic tenents of librarianship, they’ve decided to get their MLIS because it’s what someone told them to, the list goes on. This is certainly not an issue that exclusive to my program, as evidenced by Brianna Marshall‘s reflection on her own program’s need for more stringent standards. I don’t hope that my fellow students fail out of our program, far from it. I want to help them be the best librarians and information professionals they can be. I want their patrons to have the best service possible. I want them to be excellent librarians. But mostly, I want to help them because I’m a librarian at heart. If I didn’t want to help people, I wouldn’t be a very good librarian. There’s a big part of me that wants to be direct and bold: “If there is someone who wants to be a librarian, but you don’t think will make a good one, then talk them out of it. Don’t foster their aspirations.” but that’s not my personality. I’m glad that there are people out there who can be blunt and tell others: “No. This is not the path you were meant to take.” I sometimes wish more LIS programs were like that, and based on the reaction to “the graph,” I think there are a lot of people who feel that way.
Fortunately, there are a ton of amazing LIS students in my program. My coworkers and supervisors in the CUA Libraries system are amazing, my fellow CUA/LIS tweeps are awesome, and my classmates and fellow student group leaders are fantastic. Don’t get me wrong. As I just made clear in my previous paragraph, there are a few who need some work, but overall, we’re a pretty great bunch who are going to make our school proud to have us as alums. Is there room for improvement in our program? YES! Not every professor can be as amazing as my faculty advisor, some of our required readings have left something to be desired, and the course offerings have unfortunately become more than inconvenient. Just yesterday, I (along with many of my fellow CUA/LIS students) became a victim of lemon #3. I’m not happy about certain things, but then again, no program is perfect. There is no one easy fix to my LIS program, just as there is no easy fix to the over-saturated job market. It’s hard out here for an LIS student and budding professional. But we can make it better. There are so many things we can do to improve, and Chealsye Bowley did a great job of outlining different steps LIS programs can take to improve student learning.
What can we as students do? We have to be the change we wish to see. Think your program isn’t preparing students for the harsh realities of the post-MLIS job hunt? Organize a mentorship program or resume review session with employers who can offer advice. Is there a fellow student who’s struggling with their coursework? Offer to set up a meeting with someone who may be able to help them, whether that be an academic advisor or a writing tutor. Know of a scholarship or awesome employment opportunity for library school students? Advertise it on your program listserv. While these are all small things, they can all serve as a catalyst to help your fellow LIS students succeed. Mostly, tell them that they have to get involved. One cannot go through library school and expect to learn everything needed to succeed from their courses alone. Students need to be active in their own professional development, and yes, that starts when you’re in school, and even before you start your first semester of library school. Don’t know where to start? Read every article in Bobbi Newman‘s “So You Want to be a Librarian?” post. Then, head over to Hack Library School‘s blog and get lost in their archives. You’ll read things that seem like commonsense, others that challenge your assumptions, and in turn, you’ll be more prepared (and confident) in taking control of your career.
What if you’ve graduated already, maybe many years or even decades ago? You’re the ones with the power to affect real change. You’re the ones who will be hiring us. Mentor us, even if we seem resistant. Offer advice, even if unsolicited. Remember that although we’re curious about you and what you do, it can be intimidating to initiate a dialogue with you. Tell us what we need to do to be the best and most hirable MLIS holders out there (if you haven’t already taken the Hiring Librarians survey, please do it right now). Advocate for better LIS programs by serving on ALA‘s accreditation committee. Get involved in your alma mater by teaching a course or putting on a program, but also remember that just because it’s your alma mater doesn’t mean it is shouldn’t change or adapt with the times. Teach us what you wish you had learned in library school. We will be eternally grateful for your guidance, and pay it forward to the next generation of LIS grads.
None of these things will change the trend in “the graph.” That’s a discussion that, at this ridiculously early point in my career, is way above my pay-grade. Will LIS programs merge and/or close, as the Library Loon predicts? Probably. CUA recently decided to dissolve the School of Library and Information Science (which only had two programs) and now, the former LIS school is one of seventeen departments within the School of Arts and Sciences. I personally think it’s fantastic (more opportunities for collaborative relationships), but I know there was a great deal of hand-wringing involved with making the decision. Will LIS programs start limiting the number of students they accept? Not likely, as the previously discussed trends in voracious tuition appetites by administrators reflects. Will they start making their coursework harder, require work experience in the form of an internship and/or practicum, or encourage students to look beyond Libraryland? I sure do hope so. Will these three things limit the number of LIS grads? Probably not by much. Will they be good for the profession? Absolutely. And that, to me, is the most important thing.