The Social Order Of Libraries

“Balan whispered to the Wart, “Colonel Cully is not quite right in his wits. It is his liver, we believe, but the kestrel says it is the constant strain of living up to her ladyship’s standard. He says that her ladyship once spoke to him from her full social station once, cavalry to infantry, you know, and that he just closed his eyes and got the vertigo. He has never been the same since.” T. H. White. The Once & Future King.

One of the questions that comes up frequently, especially among librarians applying for their first or second job, is the question of social status. While we may not understand it, we all recognize it, especially when it is applied to us. Mostly it is seen when a librarian attempts to change the type of job he or she does in a library.

"It doesn't surprise me that there are problems of going from one aspect of librarianship to another. It violates class rules in libraries, and upsets the social order. Actually, there is an unnamed but very strongly identified pecking order in the class of librarians. Why are people getting so upset over this problem? Passions are heated because the stakes are so small. Actually, social settings are set up rather like a water fountain, with a number of different library jobs floating at the top, but fewer identified ones at the bottom."

While few people can agree about who all should be at the top, everyone agrees about who should be stuck in the bilge on the bottom. Like the definition of a lady, which few people can define but whom everyone knows who isn't one, librarians are set into a social hierarchy of class and station.

So here is my definition of the library pecking order based on my own limited library experiences. Individuals may disagree somewhat, but those who disagree the most probably are either set at the top of the list, or haven't had to look for a new job recently.

Within this hierarchy, there is some slack. Library technicians who go on to get an accredited degree are held blameless from their earlier heresy. “Like appeals to like”, and if you have been misplaced your station you might have a chance of clawing back into the group of your like minded fellows, if you don't stay away for long and become contaminated by your social inferiors.

At the very bottom of the library totem pole are media specialists without a master's degree

Only slightly above them are librarians with a master's degree but one not blessed by the ALA.

Then are the elementary school librarians with a master's degree

Legal secretaries working in law offices who claim to be law librarians but don't really have a clue

High school librarians

Circulation librarians in college libraries

Contractor or contract librarians

Children's librarians in public libraries

Reference and Cataloging librarians in public libraries

Community college or vocational school librarians

Professional indexers, abstractors or database massagers

Hospital librarians

Library directors of public libraries, except for those in really big cities.

Library consultants (this is in the middle of a change of social status. With all the librarians recently forced out of work because of the economy, more honest and qualified librarians are becoming library consultants, raising the status of this field somewhat)

Systems technicians without library degrees (well, if they ain't higher on the class scale, they're sure paid better than many library directors are, and are often treated with much more respect)

Corporate and business librarians

Reference or Cataloging librarians in larger colleges or universities

Library school professors

Specialist librarians (government documents, humanities, physical sciences, art, music, etc)

Specialized Specialist Librarians (archivists, medical, rare books, legal)

Systems librarians

University library directors, directors of really big city public libraries, deans of library schools, consortia heads, directors of well known federal libraries

You would think that at the very top of the list would be the head of a national or international library, such as the Library or Congress. Actually, this isn’t so. Often the librarians are political appointees without library degrees, and so they wield some power at meetings, but not necessarily library social status.

Now, anyone can go up or down a rung or two on this ladder. After all, we don't _really_ believe this ladder even exists. However, try to climb more than two ranks at one go, and you might be surprised at your response from the powers that be. It is slightly similar to those who guard the sides of rich merchantman sailing ships against boarding parties of fearsome pirates. “Repel boarders!”

A children's librarian with an ALA accredited master's in an elementary school might have no problem applying for a job as a children's librarian in a nearby public library. However, if the same person tried to apply for a job as a reference librarian in the same nearby public library, there might be some objections from the ref folks and selecting librarians. It would be odd to climb out of your nice round hole and do something different, and that pulls up alarms and red flags among the other library staff, who are often square pegs.

Just to mix this up job situation some more, there are directors who believe in promoting only from within the library staff. And there are those who want every new job opening to be filled by someone from outside the library, so they are willing to haul up someone from several rungs down from the outside, rather than promote from within their own staff. This is also called the "Incompetence by Affiliation Syndrome."

Artificial methods of establishing class are readily accepted by many librarians. Publications, speaking engagements, awards from non-library organizations all help establish credentials. This leads to the trap of "overqualified applicants," which is also a good excuse to deny a job to someone who might raise their class within the library field. Certainly, existing librarians want someone with less experience and status in their department, so they can force all the Saturday evening shifts and other boring jobs on them. If a new librarian comes in at the same status they have, the work will have to be shared, rather than dumped.

Groups of librarians (BTW, is a group of librarians "a shelf of librarians" or "a catalog of librarians?") in a single department tend to want to make sure any new applicants act and look just like themselves, so they won't hire "outsiders" or people who are radically different. No upward mobility among people already treading water! So if you are to be examined by a team of library staff, watch out if you are NOKD (Not Our Kind, Darling).

This leads to another problem- the overly qualified librarian in place. If you are a science librarian, you can forget about getting the higher paid position as assistant librarian. An assistant library director can be found almost anywhere, but a good science reference librarian is hard to find. Thus, in order to make the library director’s job easier, the competent librarian is passed over, and is stuck in a lower paying field forever, simply as a sacrifice to the ease and comfort of those with higher social status.

Surprisingly, race and gender don’t count in this consideration, since racism and gender discrimination are so déclassé. Social status among librarians is based more on the type of job you have done or will do, and with “time in rank” among peers.

Foreign accents are a tremendous help. A posh English accent can get a homeless person a job as patron advisor or assistant library director in a large public library, or a job in the humanities section of a college library. A German or Russian accent (not too heavy) helps in chemical, mathematical and physical science libraries, unless there is already one of those speakers there. Once one member is in, the door is shut.

The wife of a junior officer in the American military could torpedo and sink her husband’s career by dressing better than the colonel's wife does, or by displaying more couth and confidence, or by not knowing and remaining in her assigned (and demeaned) social place. (Of course this isn't true anymore. Everything is all fair and equal with no class differences. Can't happen in today's military- right?) The same is true in libraries- outshine your future boss, and you won't get in. Where else is there so much uncertainty about how to dress correctly for the job interview at different libraries?

Anyway, these are my personal observations. Present company is always excepted, and this essay does not refer to you personally, and if you disagree with me completely on class in libraries, I won't mind. Not really.

Your Grace. ;-)


The pecking order makes me sigh a bit, as an elementary school librarian. But I don't think you're too far off. I've alwys been amused by calling a group a "shush" of librarians.

Strangely enough, in the large public library system where I work, children's librarians are the first to be promoted to branch heads or administration, way more often than teen or adult librarians. The higher-ups recognize the children's librarians do the majority of the school visits, programming, and their share portion of reference work. But from what I hear, I'm in an unusual library culture.

I’ve worked in a few different library system where this was also the case. It makes since though if your Children’s Librarian has made a lot of contacts in the community and with the schools. Many people in this field are very good at networking (you meet a lot of people through their children), managing people and resources (you have to be to hold all those childrens programs) and are either natural extroverts or introverts who have overcome shyness of public speaking (also not an option when working with kids.).

Personally, I'd move the circ libs at college higher than the youth services/public. At least that's my perspective as a YS lib.

Otherwise--a very realistic list...sadly.

"Media specialists" are actually physically listed at the top of your list. This position is exactly right! I feel this is the best job in the library for a "people" person.

"Now, anyone can go up or down a rung or two on this ladder. After all, we don't _really_ believe this ladder even exists. However, try to climb more than two ranks at one go, and you might be surprised at your response from the powers that be."

I personally know of an elementary school librarian who made a switch mid-year to a specialized specialist position at a major university.
As far as the ranking in public libraries goes, it has always been my understanding that Children's Librarian ranks higher than Reference Librarian while Cataloging Librarians are relegated to the basement (often literally).

I kept look for where the rest of the management team (assistant and associate deans/librarians) fall in your ranking, but found that they didn't even make the list except for the comment "An assistant library director can be found almost anywhere..." Sigh, I knew I should have stayed in retail :-)

I'm curious where they would fall in this.

... they seem to be accorded little respect.

And, of course, there is a whole article that can be written on this between academic librarians, between tenured and non-tenured staff, college vs. university librarians, for profit vs non-profit institutions, unionized vs. non-unionized, etc.

With so many changes in librarianship, I would love to have this list updated :-)

Add new comment


  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <blockquote> <img> <b> <marquee> <strike> <del> <p> <iframe>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Subscribe to Comments for "The Social Order Of Libraries"