Librarians by the Numbers

Submitted by AndyW on Thu, 06/10/2010 - 01:28
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Blake Carver (not verified)

Thu, 06/10/2010 - 05:02

In reply to by Blake Carver (not verified)

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?

AndyW