Get Rid of Your Librarians

I was mulling, as I often do, the state of the so-called librarian profession as I rode the train in to work the other day. I wondered to myself how many librarians there were and how many library technicians. My day job involves thinking a lot about lawyers (and how they research) and paralegals (and how they fit into the legal professional world, as well as their research needs) and this seemed to be a parallel environment. Library technician certificate programs seem to be bursting at the seams with graduates and there seem to be an extraordinary number of unemployed librarians. I was surprised to find that the number of librarians has been dropping while the number of library technicians has been increasing.

Let me clarify that I don’t buy into the library “profession” idea.  Unquestionably, there are a group of people who earn an educational degree (Masters of Library (etc.) Science) who are called, and call themselves librarians.  Some are called other things.  And some people called librarians have no specialized education.  Post-graduation, there is a lot of talk of competencies but nothing mandatory to ensure that any kind of educational level is achieved or maintained.  Similarly, while many people can get a library technicians certificate, there are many others who are called library technicians who do not have that certificate.  As an employer, the degree or certificate may matter, but so does the experience.  As someone with the library education, I’m not sure I really care.  Back to the show in progress.

I ran the a search on Wolfram|Alpha, the new data search engine to find out how many librarians there were.  In the end, the search librarians retrieved an answer.  It indicated that there were nearly 150,000 librarians in the U.S. and it was increasing at the rate of about 200 per year.  There was no data for Canada, even after checking with the Canadian Library Association, which doesn’t appear to keep that statistic.  Wolphram|Alpha has some graphics as well, and had an earnings chart as well as employment history.  The earnings chart was a nice rising graph but the employment history was worrisome:

Librarian and Library Technician Occupational Data from Wolfram Alpha
Librarian and Library Technician Occupational Data from Wolfram Alpha

Clearly, there have been changes in the library world in the past years.  So I started looking for the comparison point, which was to see how the library technicians were faring.  Wolfram|Alpha shows them growing at about the same rate, 210 a year, and that there are about 115,000 in the U.S.

I suppose some of the difference between librarian and library technician population may be due to the likelihood that at a smaller or one-person library, the only person hired may be a librarian.  I must admit, I thought the number of library technicians would be higher.  It may be that both data sets look only at the people with academic credentials that meet one or the other title requirements.

From a hiring standpoint, there seems to be less and less work that requires a Masters of Library Science to accomplish.  I’m not sure if that reflects a more educated user group – underlying the trend to more complex reference than in the past, where the researcher can either do the basics herself or get directional support from a library technician – or the lowering of research expectations to the point where the good enough plateau is achievable by the average researcher.  Librarianship isn’t all reference but if library management is being handled by non-librarians, and library techs are handling an increasing amount of the library operations, it would seem that this continues to squeeze the librarian pool.  It’s certainly less expensive to have a library technician than a librarian, if you do not need the additional educational background, especially when you throw in individual experience.

Perhaps those librarians are moving out into non-traditional roles that are not captured in these sorts of data sets.  Or maybe the years 2002-2006 were just a huge retirement time for librarians.  But where did those 10,000 librarians go?

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.