I get this question a lot, so I’ll answer it in public in case anyone else wants to know the answer. Warning: frustrated librarian snark ahead.
[[MORE]]There are a lot of un- or under-employed librarians in the world right now. But it’s not that there are too few jobs, though I suppose from the perspective of an un- or under-employed librarian, there certainly are too few jobs.
But the real problem, to my mind, is that the concept of “librarian” tends to attract a particular kind of person to the profession, and the profession does not need that kind of person at this time. Not to put too fine a point on it.
People who tend to be attracted to librarianship are quiet, introverted, solitude-loving white women who love books. They think that librarianship is about sitting with books all day and lovingly petting their spines, and that’s what they want to do with their lives. They love the idea of keeping and storing pretty much everything just in case, obsessively organize their bookshelves alphabetically (ugh), and are so bent on their bookish solitude that they will bring a novel to read when going out to dinner with friends. They tend to be opposed to ebooks and digital media on moral grounds. They make jokes about how their paper journals don’t have a 140 character limit. They think the feel and smell of paper is, inexplicably, more important than accessibility of material to people with disabilities. (I will never understand this.)
The problem is that librarianship is actually a technology-rich service profession. It’s about helping people, all sorts of people, all the time, often with or using digital material and tools. Everyone thinks a good librarian is an introvert stashed away behind the rows of books, but if the idea of talking to strangers for hours makes you feel ill, you will struggle to find a job as a librarian. Can you get up in front of a room full of people and explain a thing? Can you confront a new digital tool or gadget with excitement and enthusiasm? Are you interested in the idea of designing and assessing public services, public spaces, innovative online services, or managing a staff? If not, librarianship will be a problem for you.
The future of libraries will be digital. At its heart, any library is about the free and easy flow of information, so the online world must become a librarian’s natural home. Librarians must innovate and reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant. The profession is in a state of flux as everyone panics in this digital, semantic, connected context. 90% of us are so paper-loving and digital-hating that we are functionally unable to do this. So when a library is hiring, they’re usually aiming for new blood capable of confronting these challenges. They think young people will be better at these things, but they’re wrong.
Most people who are attracted to the profession right now are pining for a simpler world. Many would prefer to be a librarian in the mid 50s, and think that’s what we want from them. When they come to interview, they think they have found their people. They’re probably not wrong. But we know we’ve made a mistake. We’re sinking, and we can’t take them with us.
I can’t tell you how many librarians I know who don’t like computers or the internet. They think the internet is for other people. For young people, most of the time. The internet is made of information, and librarians are meant to be information professionals. But if you ever see someone wearing a button that says “HUMAN SEARCH ENGINE” and thinks Google is some kind of hideous abomination trying to keyword search them out of a job, you’re definitely looking at a librarian. Go figure.
When a committee gets together to hire a new librarian, they are looking for an innovator. They are looking for a people-person interested in providing good service to patrons, and in developing the library’s relationship to its community. They want someone who is not afraid of technology, and in fact soaks in it on a regular basis with relish. They want someone filled with enthusiasm and passion for people, community, and technology, someone with vision and the ability to articulate it, someone willing to experiment and explore what comes at them, someone flexible and not afraid of radical change. They need someone who can be compassionate towards every patron who walks in the door. They desperately need someone who understands the devices, computers, the internet in general, social media, project management, customer service, and marketing.
None of those things are what people think about when they think “librarian.” Talk about a branding problem, eh?
Don’t get me wrong, we love books. Who doesn’t love books? We all love books! I write books for fun in my spare time! My bookshelves are groaning with books! But loving books does not qualify anyone to be a librarian, and that’s the bit prospective librarians often fail to understand. Unfortunately, 95% of the people who go to library school think their love of books will get them a job, and it won’t. We interview those people, they tell us they want to be a librarian because they love books, and we think, we've already got a dozen of you.
If you are an intelligent person who isn’t afraid of new technologies, have experience with and knowledge of how online tools work, are willing to play and explore new stuff as it comes along and if you’re not afraid of change, if you enjoy working with and helping people, can manage public speaking without getting freaked out, if have passion and enthusiasm to share and want to make the world a better place, please. If this is you, go to library school. We need you.