Librarians by the Numbers

As I was finalizing my conference schedule for the ALA Annual conference this year, there was a blurb for one of the programs that caught my eye. It’s for a program entitled “Passing the Baton: Who Will Take It?” on Sunday morning.

There are 72 million baby boomers, 11,000 Americans turn 50 every day, 4.6 adults turn 65 each minute, and almost 60% of librarians are 45 or older. There is little balance: only 7% of the library work force is age 20-29!

My first thought was one word: “Really?” But as I thought about in the context of my own life, it made sense.  When I graduated with my MLS, I was 29 going on 30. Librarianship was a second career, just as it was for a number of my peers at work. This also means I’m in the relatively large minority between the ages of 30 and 44; which, in using their numbers, is about 33%.

If you apply the percentages to the ALA Library Fact Sheet, it gives the following breakdown out of 149,521 librarians:

45 and older – 89,712

30-44 years old – 49,342

20-29 years old – 10,466

To give a sense to this result, the number of librarians 45 and older is approximately equal to the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the 355th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

If you were to presume that the membership of ALA followed this same age distribution pattern, the numbers get tinier based on an estimated organization size of 55,000 (the total number of eligible voting members). (I used this number instead of the full 63,000 members mentioned in the annual report since that can include trustees, friends, and other non-librarians.)   

45 and older - ~33,000

30-44 years old - ~18,150

20-29 years old - ~3,850

(And if you were to apply these numbers to the percentage of members who voted in the last ALA election (20%), you get ~6,600 (12% of the total voting membership), ~3,630 (6.7%), and ~770 (1.4%) respectively. But, alas, I am venturing into very specious logic at this point; I just wanted to run the numbers out of curiosity. I’m sure someone out there has real numbers that could change the perspective in a moment’s notice.)

Anyway, back to numbers with better backing; these statistics bring to mind a couple potential explanations.

As I stated above referencing myself, librarianship is not often a first career choice. Like myself, I was doing other things (commercial horticulture and later law school) before I settled on the profession. There are a number of people that I know who did the same; they worked in a different field, it didn’t suit them, and went back to school to get an advanced degree. They came to librarianship as it held something that was missing or incomplete from their first career. In taking a second look at their occupation expectations, library science was closer to what they wanted to do as a career.

Additionally, unlike the other sciences (both hard and soft), you cannot major in library science as your undergraduate degree. There is essentially no coursework connection from undergraduate to graduate for library science. It relies on people from other disciplines becoming interested in an MLS; not exactly the best manner in which to recruit people in the program. As the undergraduate major teaches you to think within that field, this can create its own disparity when approaching the library science mindset. Not all degree teachings are compatible, in my opinion, with that of the approach emphasized in a MLS graduate program.

(To be fair, I can’t even imagine what an undergraduate requirements for a degree in library science would even look like.)

I have a couple of other ideas, but I think I need some more time to reflect upon them (and do some fact checking). So, what do you think is creating this age gap?

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Well when they layoff all the new employees this is what you get

Interesting post AndyW, but I thought I should point out that many colleges do in fact offer undergraduate majors in library science. Ball State and University of Nebraska Omaha are two examples, and Chapel Hill offers a Bachelor of Science in Information Science. However, due to the fact that nearly all professional posts will require an MLS, these majors are increasingly regarded as less useful than majors in relevant subjects.

To address your actual question, I found the numbers somewhat misleading. There are apparently 3,830 librarians in the 20-29 age bracket, but how many of us have actually met a 20-year-old librarian? Even if one were to go to graduate school straight after university, they would still be approximately 23-24 by the time they qualified. Librarianship is my first career, but even I did not qualify until I was 26 as I spent three years in between uni and graduate school travelling and working as a library assistant to get the experience I knew I would need to find a professional job. Most first career librarians I have met are similar.

Therefore, I believe the 3,850 librarians in their 20s probably more accurately reflects librarians in their mid to late 20s. Compare that to the 18, 150 librarians between the ages of 30 to 44, a bracket that spans 15 years. It looks like the ALA is trying to convince us that there is a disproportionate number of young librarians, but I would be surprised if that were the case. Perhaps the stats would have looked different if the age brackets were constructed differently, i.e. 25-34 and so on?

Just scrolled back to the top of AndyW's post and realised I quoted the wrong statistics! There are, of course, 10,466 librarians between the ages of 20-29 and 49,342 between the ages of 30-44. Nevertheless, my original point remains the same.

Lack of entry-level jobs or the disappearance of entry-level jobs is a first thought, and as for why there are few ALA members in the younger sector, well, when there are no jobs and you have $20-30k in student loans to pay back from the MLS degree, $200+ for ALA membership (that's assuming you join a division or two relevant to your interests) isn't really feasible.

I'm facing this very issue.

When I look at the gap between the 45s and up and the rest of the numbers, I wonder how much the closing of lots of library/info science graduate schools in the 80s and 90s affected the overall number of people going into the profession? Even with distance learning at remaining schools, pursuing the degree isn't quite the falling off the log from a general undergraduate degree into an MLS program that it used to be. And I agree that lack of entry level jobs and LOTS of those jobs going to folks without MLS degrees who sometimes don't have a commitment or the cash to get to big state or national conferences really affects the numbers.

I am appalled that the ALA continues to propagate the myth the a vast number of librarians will be retiring, leaving nobody to run libraries. First of all, reaching retirement age is not the same thing is actually retiring. Second, many positions are being eliminated right now, and not just those that are being vacated through retirements and resignations - there are layoffs happening at libraries all over the country.

I was laid off from my public library job a year ago and still haven't found a full-time job. It's incredibly competitive right now and when the ALA continues to insist that not enough people are going into librarianship, I find it not only misleading, but personally insulting.

I think the point of the presenter is that the majority of librarians are getting older and that this will create a leadership gap within the profession (most notably, within the ALA organization itself). I don't see where it says that these librarians are retiring, but I can understand that the implication is that they are since they are getting older. I think the presentation is about attracting people to leadership positions in order to secure the future of libraries (whatever remains, that is).

I think that once a lot of the older employees start retiring it will be a good thing. I come from a library technician course where most of us are actually in our early twenties (a few people are even straight out of high school). Hopefully when all of these jobs start opening up, younger people be able too fill them up and it will help libraries to stay relevant and keep up with technology a bit better than I've seen some older folks do.

I bristle at the assumption that we over-45 librarians aren't relevant or that we're clueless about technology. We're the ones who pioneered using technology in libraries in the '80's and '90's!
I'm afraid the lack of interest in librarianship among students is simply that it's not seen as a viable or lucrative career path. Not when libraries are closing and staff are being laid off right and left!
There ARE young, dynamic information professionals out there who will step up to leadership in the field - I know several - one of them is my son! The field is changing rapidly, and we simply don't know what we'll look like 10 or even 5 years from now. Some of us will change and grow, some of us will stay behind.

I was the only person under 30 in my lib grad school back in 1984. The numbers are the same. This is our profession.

90% of the librarians I went to grad school with where there because they were returning to school looking for a second career. Of the librarians I ended up working with in an academic library, probably 60% started out in another field, and librarianship was their second choice. That would probably explain the lack of younger people, at least in my area (midwest).

I think I've met two people who went to library school straight out of college and had planned on being a librarian since high school. I've been in the field 10 years, so that's not very many.

Part of the reason I chose to enter library sciences was due to the news that numerous jobs would be opening in this field. When I graduated with my MLS three years ago I struggled to find any sort of entry-level job in the field. I was applying for paraprofessional, part-time jobs, anything to get some experience. Luckily, I managed to find a full-time, professional job, but am discouraged by the wages. In fact, the maintenance and janitorial staff earn more than me at this institution. True, I was not expecting to earn big bucks in this field, but I did expect to earn enough to raise a family on my income. Instead, I find myself considering changing careers, taking some courses, and finding employment in a field that offers better wages and more flexibility in finding work. I am in touch with other library professionals my age who are doing exactly that. This may help to explain the gap in the 30-44 year old range? It's true that no profession is perfect, but I don't feel like my MLS bought me much in terms of income or job security.

Not a problem with your post so much as the program description--in no way does the library work force consist solely (or, I'd guess, primarily) of librarians. Not only are there other library professionals (such as I used to be), there are LOTS of library technicians and other non-MLS folks...

All I can do is guess that the person writing the program description meant librarians based on the previous sentences. But it is a change of terms from "librarians" to "library work force", the latter being far more encompassing.

older librarians? I don't see the numbers here, but why are the 45 yr old librarians lumped in with the 65 yr old librarians? remember Steve Jobs, a god to all techweeners, is 55, an old man compared to me...

I was just using the presenter's numbers. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the 45-60 age range, since it might be more revealing in terms of age median of the library profession. But I would surmise that the number of leadership roles in the profession (directors, managers, etc) and the ALA organization (officers, counselors, etc) are held by people in the 45 and up age range. The presenter is talking about attracting people in the 45 and younger age bracket to leadership positions since that is the 'up and coming' generation. As it is vastly outnumbered by the 45 and up crowd, there is going to be a lacuna in the number of people willing to take leadership positions and the number of positions available (more positions than people).

I'm not sure why you are saying I have a problem with older librarians. You'll need to expand upon that point.

"So, what do you think is creating this age gap?" is your question. when the original ALA program focuses on the question, "Not surprisingly the profession worldwide is asking “who will run the libraries when this talent leaves?”"

why does it matter how old a librarian is? as you can see by most of these responses, we don't even get the degree until we're 27+.

so as 27 being the baseline, someone who is 35 is still a young librarian. someone who is 45 is an experienced librarian, etc.

and most of these comments believe it's an economic condition of librarianship, that it's expensive to get the degree and beneficial to work as long as possible because being one won't make you rich.

but just like your essay on closing libraries where you said, "this conservative mindset of “This is how we’ve always done it” permeates and stifles any attempts at better practices."

"this is how we've always done it" implies an older person. the ALA program concludes they are "talent" but there's a tone I see in your writing that leads me to believe that you think older librarians are just in your way.

I stand by my original question as to what is creating this age gap as it was meant to elicit responses. From what I have been reading (here and on my blog), the appearance of librarianship as a "second glace" career is coming through. That's an acceptable explanation to me and certainly doesn't change what I thought the underlying rationale was.

I don't think older librarians are in the way. While age and resistance to change are generally attributed to older demographics (beyond librarianship and in the population at large), I don't think it is the exclusive domain of age. I don't think it would be a stretch for a librarian of my age (early 30's) to be instructed in a specific way of doing something so that they might give the "this is the way we've always done it" as a answer to an alternative, as if the way that thing was done was some sort of tradition.

The implication is not meant for older librarians; it is meant for those people who are deeply ingrained in their resistance to change. Nor would I associate the desire to use the latest gadgets and technology in the library as the exclusive domain of the young. I think there is talent in the age group mentioned in the presentation, and the librarian profession risks losing the benefits of that experience if there are not people to step up to fill those leadership roles (either in director positions or in organizational positions).

I think a lot of people hit the nail on the head when saying there's not many jobs available for new librarians. The market is extremely competitive. I know new grads willing to move anywhere who still can't get a job. I graduated 7 years ago and even then the market was very tight. That lack of jobs combined with low wages probably turns some people off.

More importantly, though, this job requires a master's degree. Even if someone knew for sure they wanted to go into the field after college, they may still need time to work and save up money to get there. So by the time you take a few years to work, research your options, study for the GRE, apply, etc you're looking at at least a few year gap. Add that to 2+ years of grad school and you've got people not entering the profession until 25-28. I don't think that's so odd. I went to grad school right out of college and I didn't enter the profession full time until I was almost 25. And you can't generally be a librarian at 20, especially not if you are required to have a master's degree. So looking at the raw numbers for the younger age group isn't too meaningful--of course they're smaller because you're looking at a smaller pool of people who are even eligible!

I don't know if looking at the 20-29 group is really a great indicator of the future. I think looking at the group who is 29-35 or something might be more useful. Does it matter if librarians came to the field as a second career? I don't think that has any bearing on the ability of the field to stay current, attract new talent, etc. The point is, those are the librarians who are (near) the beginning of their working life, who will hopefully be in the field for decades to come. As long as you have at least some people in the pipeline from 20-29, I don't think you're going to "run out".

I know Pratt graduated 150 librarians his spring, and that's only one of four library schools just in New York City. I don't see how the market can absorb that many new grads, especially as attrition is met not with hiring but with the elimination of positions. I'm much more concerned about second-level management transition, who with experience and expertise will lead after the oldest among us finally retire.

And if you're 45, you have a good 20 more years of working life. I'm not sure those demographics make much sense.

While librarianship is usually a second (or third or fourth) career for many people, I think the numbers are starting to shift slightly. When I started library school in 2008, many of my classmates were fresh out of college. With the economy in the toilet, lots of undergraduates are choosing to continue on to graduate school in order to delay the job search. In 2009, we witnessed a similar trend in our incoming MLS students -- many were straight from college. I'm told that the majority of students who will start my program this fall are also very young.

What is killing me (and my classmates) is the expense of becoming a librarian. I just spent tens of thousands of dollars on my MLS, not including rent, utilities, groceries, health and car insurance, gasoline, or textbooks. I recently applied to my state for public librarian certification, and it requires a certain number of continuing education credits every five years, which will not be cheap. Conference expenses are astronomical. This is an incredibly expensive profession. It's no wonder that librarians are so homogeneous -- minorities and the underprivileged simply can't afford this career. Now that I just completed my MLS, I'm not sure that I can afford to be a librarian with starting salaries as low as $25k. I just graduated last month, and I'm already frustrated and disillusioned by the competitive nature of the job search and the low-paying positions out there. Something has got to give.

When I entered grad school (1993), librarianship was being touted as a growing field. Lots of studies supported this at the time. However, the field began to contract shortly thereafter. Many of the coming retirements, touted by the aforementioned studies, DID occur but rather than creating new jobs in numbers equal to the retirements, libraries began to promote internally to fill these "retired" positions and never hired new people. Thus, you had promotions for existing staff without bringing in an equal number of new bodies. My wife entered nursing school enticed, in part, by promises of jobs jobs jobs. When the economy tanked, vacant positions were often broken up and the workload assumed by existing employees eager for additional hours (because their spouses had been laid off). Thus, our profession's jobs outlooks is not unique.

I understand the desire of our profession's younger members for us older folks to step aside and free up jobs for them. I entered the field in my early thirties after ten years of service as a military officer. I find that that experience has made me a better candidate for library management positions than I might have been had I entered the library field straight out of undergrad studies. My job (public library director) requires not only technical skills, but political and managerial ones too. I hope that not too many of our younger colleagues are relying solely on their technology-based skills for advancement. Yeah, you probably do more have more specific tech skills than do I, but no one is owed a career. And I know things you don't.

We all strive and compete for jobs and promotions based on our experience, abilities and qualifications. Rather than simply worrying over when the next retirement will free up a job (and remember, it might not), our younger members should strive to expand the areas of competence and experience and seek opportunities to branch out and learn new things; maybe even from those "dinosaurs" at the top. Rather than seething with resentment, take a look at your skill set and devise ways to make yourself more marketable and promotable.

Nobody is disparaging older librarians. You have more experience and wisdom, and I, as a new librarian, respect that. I have never thought, "Gee, I wish older librarians would retire so that I can have a job." It's unfair to accuse us of a sense of job entitlement.

There are so many young, bright, enthusiastic, energetic MLS graduates out there. We want to make a difference in the profession and serve library patrons to the best of our abilities. It's incredibly depressing that the job market will not allow us to do that. Yes, we can volunteer at libraries in order to build our skill sets and make ourselves more marketable, but volunteering will not pay our bills.

Agree, agree, agree that it's the jobs. I'm 25 and finished my MLIS a year ago at 24. Although many of my classmates in grad school fell into the 20-29 segment, I can't say the same as far as full-time employment goes. I managed to land a job six months ago and I thank my lucky stars every single day. I know my story is the exception to the rule.

I went to library school right out of college. I finished the degree by the time I was 24 and am 26 now. I was able to find an entry level position quickly and have even been promoted to a management position.

But, now I face a layoff and am starting to regret becoming a librarian. It is a shame that the layoffs go by seniority because many young librarians are being let go and we are obviously the future of librarianship.

No, it's not. What if you were a couple years from a retirement package and you got laid off? I'll bet you'd feel a lot worse than you do now. It just makes sense to go by seniority and redundancy.

Listen, I got laid off last year, right after the stock market crash. I'm not going to lie to you- it was hard. The hardest time of my life. I nearly got evicted from my home because there were no jobs and I had to make rent.

It's a year later, and I'm doing really well. I was extremely depressed, but I went back to school to get an MA, and landed an awesome job at NYPL- even though I had been laid off from my last one.

These are hard times, for everyone. The important thing is not to give up hope. Things can always turn around.

If you're the socially engaged type, you could also do what we are doing in NYC and start a rally to protest budget cuts to your local public library system.

It only makes sense to the those with seniority. But go ahead and cut the young inexpensive Libs who actually, you know, work at their jobs.

I hate that layoffs go by seniority because I know many people who are more senior but should have been let go because they are not good at their jobs. However, they were lucky to get a unionized job and didn't face such drastic budget cuts and were able to stick around long enough. But that's a whole other discussion really.

I am in NYC and the situation doesn't look too bright. NYPL is probably going to face layoffs too so good luck.

Baby Boomers are USELESS!

This comment reminds me of that scene from the movie, Life of Brian.

"All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us? "

Each generation builds on the next. Considering they had a lot to do with the very computer communication system we are using to have this discussion, I'd say they are not useless.

btw, are you up for a layoff at NYPL too?

Baby boomers are not useless and you could learn quite a bit from them if you would open your ears and shut you mouth. I am only 25 and started with my first professional position when I was 22. I worked this and finished the 2 semesters of my MLS. I then got a better job and am moving up the ladder. I think that the problem is wages and the entitlement that many people in my generation feel. Comments like that only make us look irresponsible, entitled and bitter, which is why many of those baby boomers don't like us.