• November 1, 2014

The New Library Professional

If you work in an academic library and are under 35, you probably don't have a lot in common with your older counterparts. You are far more likely to work in areas beyond the confines of traditional librarianship, often in information technology. You are less likely to hold a degree in library science. You are more diverse in ethnic and racial terms. And while those of you in nonsupervisory jobs generally earn less than your comparable older colleagues, some of you in high-tech jobs earn much more.

All of those conclusions are based on 2005 demographic data, the latest available, from the Association of Research Libraries, which collects information on the professional staffs at its member libraries.

Viewed collectively, the members of the under-35 cohort are a harbinger of a new kind of academic library professional, one whose traits bear directly on the ability of libraries to thrive amid the continuing revolutions in scholarship, teaching, and learning.

The generation gap in research libraries begins with the large proportion of young people who work at jobs that either did not exist for their older colleagues, or weren't associated years ago with librarianship.

James G. Neal, university librarian at Columbia University, invented the phrase "feral professionals" to describe individuals in such positions. Feral professionals, he wrote in a February 15, 2006, article in LibraryJournal.com, work in jobs that don't require them to have a background in library education, and so "bring to the academic library a 'feral' set of values, outlooks, styles, and expectations." Examples of feral job categories include "systems, human resources, fund-raising, publishing, instructional technology, [and] facilities management."

As an academic librarian myself, I've been writing about the demographics of the profession for the research-library association for years. Using its 2005 data, I have isolated the nontraditional types of jobs that Neal mentioned, and found some dramatic results. For example, people in nontraditional positions accounted for 23 percent of the professionals at research libraries in 2005, compared to just 7 percent in 1985.

But the most compelling aspect of the nontraditional population is its youth: 39 percent of library professionals under 35 work in such nontraditional jobs, compared with only 21 percent of those 35 and older.

It is hard to say which is more significant -- that young people work in nontraditional jobs at a rate almost double that of their older colleagues, or that nearly 40 percent of the under-35 crowd is not working at jobs commonly associated with librarianship. The former speaks to a new generation gap within the library, the latter to the kinds of work the academic library is prepared to do and its future direction.

Nontraditional professional positions are not only growing in size and influence; they also pay more. Compensation for traditional library professionals has long lagged as a result of their relatively weak market value outside libraries. But that is not the case for IT specialists, fund raisers, financial and human-resource professionals, and so on.

Within the under-35 population, 24 percent of nontraditional library employees earn $54,000 or more, compared to just 7 percent of those in traditional positions. Our profession has no precedent for the existence of so large a cohort of young employees who begin their careers at salaries approaching those of established middle managers.

Compensation is thus another factor separating younger and older library employees, but it also poses a broader question for administrators: Can libraries maintain two professional tracks with such different compensation patterns? The emergence of that young, highly paid cohort has the potential to disrupt a decades-long equilibrium in compensation within academic libraries. In that, our libraries are following a pattern already established in their parent universities.

Not all nontraditional jobs are created equal, however. Within the cohort of under-35, nontraditional employees, 58 percent work in information-technology positions. Such positions constitute the second-largest job category at libraries, behind reference.

The computer types in academic libraries are disproportionately young. And perhaps not surprisingly, young computer experts enjoy a substantial advantage in salary (47 percent of them earn $50,000 and up) when compared to other young professionals in nonsupervisory library jobs (only 18 percent earn $50,000 or more).

That salary differential carries forward to the supervisory level, where the heads of info-tech departments earn more than the heads of every other library unit with the exception of administrators of law and medical libraries.

Finally, most information-technology professionals in our libraries are male (71 percent), which is not the case in other types of library positions (28 percent male).

Neal's concept of "feral professionals" depends as much on this cohort's lack of training in library science as on the nontraditional nature of their work. The association's data offer mixed support for him on that count. It is true that the overall proportion of library professionals who have no degree in the field is exploding, up 142 percent since 1985, and 35 percent since 2000. And most of those without degrees from library programs are indeed clustered in nontraditional positions, 46 percent compared to just 8 percent of those in traditional library jobs.

But while it is reasonable to add "propensity to lack a library degree" to the list of attributes that set young library professionals apart, the numbers make clear that a substantial number of young nontraditional employees do, after all, hold a library degree. For that reason, "feral professionals" should be considered a subset of the population of nontraditional staff members.

It is also worth noting that young professionals at research libraries are also "nontraditional" in that they are, to a modest degree, more diverse than their older colleagues. That has not always been the case, for, as recently as 1986, young professionals were actually less diverse than their elders.

Minority representation among new hires has grown steadily since then, doubtless the result of persistent efforts on the part of libraries, library schools, and library associations. By 2005, 18 percent of young professionals were members of minority groups, compared to 12 percent of older professionals. But clearly there is room for improvement, given that the most recent data show that minority students make up 23 percent of the graduates of library-degree programs.

The easiest reaction to the demographic changes in our profession is to embrace, and even celebrate them. It is certainly true that the nature of scholarship and higher education has changed in ways that present academic libraries with important challenges that did not exist 20 years ago, and libraries deserve credit for finding the creativity and resources to meet those challenges quickly and effectively.

The staffing changes have certainly resulted in libraries that are better integrated into the core academic mission of the university and better positioned to lead. As the size and influence of the nontraditional sector of library employees grow, however, library administrators would do well to think about the traditional expertise in their ranks -- expertise that, in many respects, responds to timeless values that lie at the heart of our profession.

The libraries that thrive in the coming years will be those that apply the full range of nontraditional expertise in the service of those timeless values, and not the other way around.

Stanley Wilder is the associate dean of the River Campus libraries at the University of Rochester.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.