Monday, June 21, 2010

Tough Times: Thoughts on the Library Job Market from a Department Head Who Just Hired a Reference Librarian

Library funding news has been bleak for the last couple of years. Municipal budgets are flat or declining, and loss of funding from state governments is hitting all types of libraries particularly hard. Not many full time library positions are being offered on the job lines. Knowing all of this, I was still surprised by the huge response to the posting of a full time reference librarian's position at my library. In the past, we had never gotten more than about forty applicants for a job that we posted, and even then a third of the job seekers were people from other fields thinking that they could bypass the requirements for library training and experience. After I posted our position in April, I received seventy-eight applications with resumes from fully qualified librarians or library students close to qualifying.

Reading through over seventy letters (a few foolish applicants failed to send cover letters), I got a look into the very deep pool of library talent that is currently available for hire. Many qualified, experienced, and creative librarians are currently either unemployed or under-employed. From my reading of the letters and resumes, I sense that under-employed is the new norm for young librarians. Quite a few have been working in part time library positions for several years, perhaps supplementing that employment with work at restaurants, discount stores, and such. Many have been volunteering at libraries or social services agencies that they feel translate into relevant experience. A fortunate few are making ends meet with two part time library jobs. Many get glowing references from employers who wish they could give them full time hours. New graduates from library school have these now experienced librarians competing for the same few jobs.

While I did not sense despair from the letters, there seemed to be a heightened urgency to get a library job that actually paid a living wage. The applicants are ready to work. Several expressed that the open position was just what they had been seeking – a position that sparked their imagination. They were sure that they were perfect for the job. I am sure that many of them would have done well. My first call folder was rather thick.

It always stings not to get a job for which you are qualified and enamored. Nothing I can write here can lessen that sting for the many hopeful applicants that did not even get an interview. At this point all the applicants know the outcome, for I did contact them to announce the position was filled.

A second round of surprises came after my carefully worded closing letters. Around a dozen applicants thanked me for letting them know that the job was filled. While the news was not good for them, it was an acknowledgment of their offering themselves to my library and ended any doubt that they had as to their status in the process. Another handful of applicants asked me through email or even by phone call what they had lacked to be considered. Here I answered carefully, saying what I had sought (a reiteration of the job announcement) instead of dissecting what the candidates lacked. They could then make their own analysis. By doing this, a potentially awkward question (which I would not deny them) became a more positive conversation.

I have spent weeks thinking about the experience and have a few observations for people applying for jobs.

1. Send a well-written cover letter of no more than three paragraphs that covers about three quarters of a page. Address how you meet the job criteria. Don't stray into your irrelevant (to the job) interests and activities. Be positive without boasting.

2. If you are sending cover letters and resumes by email (which most people do), be very careful to send the right ones specific to the job for which you are applying. Sending letters addressed to other parties does not engender any confidence in your ability to do good work. If you are applying to a public library, do not state on your resume that your objective is to work in a government archive. This seems pretty obvious, but I saw six or seven cases of incompatible objectives.

3. For the benefit of the prospective employer, who might be collecting Word documents or PDFs in a folder, put your name in the document name. It saves the employer from having to rename dozens of documents named "resume."

4. If sending paper letter and resume, be sure to include your email address so the prospective employer can quickly verify that it was received. Not including an email makes you seem out of touch.

5. PDFs often look better when opened by the prospective employer, whose Microsoft Word might have different margins than the applicant's Microsoft Word.

6. Have patience. Looking through applications and setting up interviews takes time. Calling or emailing the prospective employer to ask when your interview will be the moment the application period ends will not portray you as the calm and confident candidate that the employer seeks.

Here are a few thoughts for the profession as a whole.

1. This is not the time to push prospective librarians to attend library school. Only those people who know the current conditions and who either have a job already lined up or are willing to risk spending a few years under-employed should start working for a degree.

2. Library schools need to scale back to survive. If too many degrees are issued causing an overabundance of librarians, the news will eventually reach prospective future students and registrations will fall.

3. Finding satisfying non-traditional jobs for current and future library students is also needed.

Thousands of librarians are meeting at the annual conference of the American Library Association this week in Washington, D.C. I suspect there will be many there seeking jobs. I hope to read how well they did finding them and how the issue of jobs for librarians is address at the conference.

26 comments:

laura said...

What kind of a mix of applications did you get in terms of where people were from? I'm curious about how numbers and demographics in suburban Chicago compare to those of the applicants we get for jobs out here (and we get a lot of applicants!) in rural Wyoming.

ricklibrarian said...

Laura, I am a bit surprised on looking to see how overwhelmingly local the response was. Of the 78, only 15 were from outside the Chicago area. I thought there had been more. Three were from Indianapolis, which is about three hours away. Applications did come from the East Coast, South, and Southwest.

Lauren-laserone said...

It's a shame how things are right now. I have been feeling SO inspired to go to library school but I keep reading about libraries closing, etc. I hope things turn around soon. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

As a librarian looking for work, I can answer to why applicants are mainly local. With today's economy most can not afford to move and/or risk a spouse leaving their career.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I am one of those underemployed librarians. I attended ALA last year as a library student and then graduated less than a month later. At one of the sessions I attended I was asked to introduce myself. Many of the professional librarians there were pleased to hear I was a library student and one even remarked "We need you" to which I replied "Well, I need a job." No one had a response to that, in fact I am still waiting for one.

Anonymous said...

Rick, thank you for the advice. It would never have occurred to me to name my document "Jane Doe resume," but it certainly makes sense!

Congratulations to your new reference librarian, as well. It sounds like they will be working in a very positive environment.

Rebecca said...

Rick, this is some great advice. I agree that job seekers (of any profession!) need to check and double check their submissions to make sure they are sending it to the right name! And yes, if you call me to see why you were not interviewed yet, you go right to the "no" pile. A polite email to make sure your submission was received is OK, but anything more than that makes you a pest.
And I also very much agree that this is not the time to be encouraging folks to head back to library school. My last job opening, I had FORTY applicants for a 10-hour a week position. Yikes!!

Julie said...

As an underemployed librarian, it's good to know that I'm not alone (or maybe, it's not really good!). I graduated from library school two years ago, and in that time I have (barely) survived by working part-time, non-professional jobs. I FINALLY got a professional position, but it's part-time. I'm up to my neck in student loans and sometimes feel like going to library school was incredibly foolish and selfish of me. I have actually told students who are interested in librarianship NOT to go to library school at this time because a.) the job market is terrible, and b.) I don't need any more people competing with me for jobs!

Chad said...

Good post, Rick, and most helpful advice. I wish the profession as a whole, though, would not continue to discuss ad nauseum the number of "baby boom" librarians and others on the verge of retirement. If the recent economic downturn has taught us anything, it is that many librarians are staying employed well past retirement, for various reasons. For some, they will be employed literally until they die. And that is not to disparage them; just to acknowledge the state of affairs. The normal transition of one generation to another through retirement has ended in many professions, including librarianship. That, coupled with positions being eliminated upon retirement, of course.

MeganO said...

Like many other commenters, I have also just graduated from library school and I'm looking for a job. Luckily (maybe?) it seems as though there are increasing numbers of academic full-time jobs out there, but as you point out there are lots of more experienced people with whom I'm competing. I am looking at being underemployed, or employed outside my field while volunteering, until I can get a full time position. Sad to know it's not my imagination and there are so many of us out there...good luck everyone!

Beth said...

Don't loose hope--there are library positions out there. Use any networks you have (or work to establish them) and keep trying. I lost my job on May 28th and just accepted a job offer comparable to one I loss. Stay positive and keep working toward your goal!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, and I wish all newer librarians the best of luck in this economy. I also agree that potential library students should consider their options seriously.

Sadly, many of the older generation of librarians are now in the situation of NOT being able to retire perhaps as soon as we would like. I had contemplated retiring in another 2 years or so, but will most likely work longer than that due to my spouse losing his job (he is highly educated, highly experienced and currently working 3 part-time jobs with no benefits). We feel grateful that I have my benefited full-time job, but I am sorry that I can't leave sooner - both for myself and to open up a position for someone younger.

I know of other boomer generation librarians in my situation, which just makes the job market that much tighter.

Anonymous said...

The idea that the entire library market is experiencing a lack of openings is an over-generalization. Making suggestions that potential librarians forego library school or library schools to cut back is bad advice. Better advice: look outside your local market and be willing move. Markets exist where job postings go unfilled or must be posted multiple times before being filled (ex: San Antonio area).

Anonymous said...

As an academic librarian, when one of our student workers expresses interest in the professional library world, I caution them that they shouldn't go into it if they're not willing to relocate. I was tied to the region by my husband's still attending school, and it took me 3 years to find a full-time position.

Elizabeth said...

I just found this post (that's why I'm commenting so late) through an underemployed librarian friend of mine. I graduated from library school in December and spent 5 months looking for an academic reference position. I was picky because I had two job offers from public libraries and during the face-to-face interviews, realized that I DID NOT want to work at a public library.

You can read more about my job hunt and my eventual job offer/acceptance on my personal blog and at Closed Stacks (where I blog occasionally as Librarian Rx), but I did just want to say that it's nice to hear an opinion from someone doing the hiring and not just people looking for jobs. All of your advice is excellent and I will be passing it along to anyone who asks and use it in any future job hunting activities of my own. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Rick, thank you for this thought-provoking post. I'm a new graduate looking for jobs, and I wish that all libraries were as courteous to job seekers as you were during your search process. Many libraries do not bother to notify applicants that a position has been filled. I would much rather get a rejection letter than be subjected to complete silence. I interpret this silence as disrespectful and I often think that if they can't be bothered to respond to job applicants, then how do they treat their patrons? The librarian you hired is lucky indeed to work for such a well-run library. ~K

Robert said...

The points you make echo those I made in my article "Back to the Future" in American Libraries in response to the attempts by library school educators to glut their classes with new students because of all the "retirements" that will open up new jobs. I am glad is there is at least one other sane voice pointing out where this path of good intentions may lead. I have thirteen years of library experience in multiple settings and four publications in the library literature, but if I am caught in the budget cuts, I too could spend years looking around the country before anyone would hire me again, so the plight of the brand new librarian is a particularly bad one. Library schools may benefit financially from classes packed with students, but it is another story for their graduates

Laura said...

Rick,

I will receive my MLIS in a month, and I just wanted to thank you for your tips for us job-seekers. Many of my classmates and I who have started applying are dismayed at the lack of response (my cohort is a very smart bunch). I think that it's classy that you take the time to notify your candidates of search outcome.

What you have said about the number of applicants echoes what I have been told by hiring managers in academic libraries in my region. 10 years ago, they would receive maybe 12-15 qualified applications; now they receive 70+! While I am interesting in working "traditional" library jobs such as reference and cataloging, I am exploring other avenues such as digital asset management (my focus is in digital content management). I am also willing to relocate, which should help my odds.

I am praying that once I get that degree, that I will start getting some phone calls :).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the useful advice written with a compassionate voice. Although I am employed full-time, I've sacrificed a lot to take & keep this job. Many people who graduated with me in 2006 have still not found jobs in libraries or related fields. Your sympathetic understanding of both sides of the hiring process is most welcomed.

Anonymous said...

This is great advice. I especially agree with #3 (thoughts on the profession as a whole.) As a recent MLIS graduate and someone with business and academic library experience, I took a non-traditional job in the library industry (I am doing marketing for a library technology company.) Although it is not my desired job, it is very fulfilling, full-time, an MLIS was preferred, and I get to stay very involved in the library field. I encourage other recent MLIS grads to look into non-traditional positions.

Librarian Zero said...

Rick, I'm interested in hearing from some of your applicants. I've started a blog about just this topic, underemployed librarians, and am looking for people to profile on it: http://librarianzero.blogspot.com . Anyone else in such a position is welcome to contact me. I think these stories aren't told often enough, especially to aspiring librarians.

ricklibrarian said...

Librarian Zero,

Good luck in your quest. I am sure there are many good stories. I would caution all to write well and thoughtfully. Prospective employers may be reading.

Rick

Anonymous said...

I wonder if all of the online MLIS degrees are doing anyone any favors. Perhaps in the case of those who are currently working in a library and surrounded by librarian mentors, but in the case of those who have never and are not currently working in the library field, it seems a disservice. Furthermore, will those who are not in the position to move to attend library school later be in the position to move to for a librarian position? One requirement for finding a job in the field seems to be the ability and willingness to relocate.
On another note, I always converted my letters and resumes to PDF, until at one interview I discovered that the printers at the university garbled even the PDF. Since that time I have gone back to using Word. I figure that even if my formatting is changed, at least the text will be readable.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from library school in May and felt really lucky to find a part-time librarian job, but I know a lot of people who are still looking for any library job to get some experience.

Thank you for your honest advice, although I can't see library schools denying admission when their enrollment is booming.

I'm also concerned for people who would like to go to library school but are constrained by finances. It's going to be tough to have a more diverse workforce if people can't afford the tuition are are limited in terms of the school loans they can get.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I am curious if you happen to know if the job market for School (K-12) librarians is just as competitive and difficult to get into as other librarian positions? I was hoping to become a school librarian, but after reading your blog I am not sure if it is worth my time and money. I would have no problem re-locating, since my husband's job is flexible and he could do it most anywhere.

ricklibrarian said...

Hi. Being a school librarian is a wonderful thing. and I believe every school needs a good library with professional staff. School administrators do not always agree. The library is often the first thing cut in a financial crisis. There are jobs but there is much competition to get them. If you decide to proceed, do so with patience and determination. Good luck.