The Library Employment Landscape

Job seekers navigate uncertain terrain

May 3, 2021

The library employment landscape
Illustration: Shane Tolentino

Mindy Moran* planned on a career as an academic librarian. Since graduating with her MLS in 2016, however, she has not found a permanent position in a university or college library. She also has realized: “I may or may not actually end up working in a library” at all.

Even before COVID-19 struck early last year, the LIS job market was a competitive one. Now, with the pandemic’s one-year anniversary behind us, the employment landscape for librarians has become even rockier and more unstable for entry-level candidates.

At Syracuse (N.Y.) University School of Information Studies, for instance, the job placement rate for graduating LIS students was 89% in 2017 and 92% in 2018. “It was 2019 where we started to see a dip,” when the rate dropped to 80%, says Jeffrey Fouts, assistant director of career services at Syracuse. “But man, the pandemic has really taken a toll on job placement, especially for LIS students,” he says, noting that numbers dipped into the low 60% range in 2020. “That was very disheartening.”

“Anecdotally, since the pandemic, it’s like academic and public [library] jobs have almost been cut in half,” agrees Rebecca Hodson, assistant director of career services at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) School of Information Sciences. Though her school’s graduates are finding jobs, she says, “it has been a hard hit. We are definitely in a challenging place.”

David Connolly, who oversees the American Library Association’s (ALA) JobLIST website as recruitment ad sales manager, expected the pandemic to affect the LIS employment market the same way the Great Recession of 2007–2009 did. He was wrong. It was worse.

“[The number of job listings] really choked off in March 2020. From that point through the summer, we saw things contract much faster and deeper than recessions of the past, to where we had about a quarter of the job postings we’d usually have,” he says. “Entry-level and mid-level positions contracted the most.”

The good news, he continues, is that “things turned around and improved each month as the winter went on. We’re now running more like about 60%, maybe even 70%, of what we’d normally see at this time of year. So it’s not back to what we’d think of as normal, but it’s headed in the right direction, and fairly quickly.”

Perspectives from the hunt

Naomi House was completing her MLIS at Rutgers University in 2010 when she founded the I Need a Library Job email list, a compilation of LIS job postings from JobLIST, the Special Libraries Association Career Center, Archives Gig, and American Association of Law Libraries websites, and others, as well as jobs submitted by individuals and organizations. In 2013, she converted the email list into a website (

Starting in late February 2020, “what I saw happening [on the site] wasn’t just a lack of new jobs being advertised but also mass layoffs—mostly, though not always, for staff who work most directly in person at locations and with patrons,” House says. “Many public and university libraries drastically cut their staff. So not only were there fewer jobs, but dramatically higher numbers of job hunters all of a sudden.”

Some of those job hunters have new geographic considerations. Moran, 29, was living in a large East Coast city when she began looking for an academic library position. Though able to find a temporary job processing materials and binding journals as a public library assistant, she had no luck locating permanent, full-time work in an academic setting, though she did have “some final-round interviews,” she says.

Once COVID-19 came along, she found herself longing to live closer to family, so she moved to a smaller city in the Southeast with less competition for jobs in her field—but also fewer colleges and universities. As a result, she says, “I’m looking [for jobs at] public libraries, and there are more of those, but they’re hiring even less.

I think for students who can envision themselves in nontraditional LIS roles, they’re going to do a lot better.—Rebecca Hodson, assistant director of career services at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences

Things are no easier across the border in Canada, says job seeker Graham MacLean, 47, who received his MLIS from University of Western Ontario in 2006. After graduation, he worked as a cataloger in an antiquarian bookstore, then as a university archivist, before health issues took him out of the labor force for a while. Since 2016, he has been applying for positions in both public and academic libraries while he supports himself by working at a hobby shop.

One obstacle to employment in a public library, he says, is that in his experience, those jobs are often held by people who worked there even before earning a library degree and whose tuition may have been at least partially financed by their library employers. “If anyone is looking for a job in the public library field, tell them, before they take their master’s degree, be a page for several years,” MacLean says. “You can start while you’re still in high school, then go through university and get your master’s.”

Alternate paths

“I don’t have regrets [about obtaining an MLS],” says Moran, who adds that she has “made peace” with the possibility of not ending up in the library field. “I think the degree will help me. I had an interview for a job as a technology quality assistant, and they were very interested in the fact that I had trained as a librarian.”

In fact, nonlibrary opportunities for people with LIS degrees are booming, says Christopher Perrello, Syracuse iSchool’s director of career services. “They really could go to any consulting firm and get hired for tech analysis, probably making I’m not going to say how much more than the average librarian,” he says. “But I have to say, 99% of students I meet from the library information science program got into it because they want to be the legit stereotypical librarian, really being there for the community. You mention, ‘You can go to McKinsey or Deloitte,’ and they’re just disgusted,” he says, referring to two large consulting companies.

“It takes a little bit of an open mind on the students’ part,” says UIUC’s Hodson. “I think for students who can envision themselves in nontraditional LIS roles, they’re going to do a lot better. I see a lot of opportunity by thinking about transferrable skills.”

One job-related challenge of the pandemic that’s cropping up even pre-graduation: getting relevant library experience while still in school. “The students who graduated in May, for the most part, had a pretty normal program till the very end,” Hodson says. “It’s the ones starting now I’m concerned about.” With so many internships, assistantships, practicums, and volunteer opportunities in jeopardy, “how are they going to get meaningful experience?

“Some work obviously can be done remotely, like a lot of metadata work,” she continues. “There’s virtual reference; there’s database stuff. But when it comes to getting experience with kids in a reading program, all those students [were out of luck] last summer.”

Though not quite all. Because UIUC’s iSchool offers an online learning option, students participate from many states—which, of course, vary widely in their pandemic-related restrictions. “I had a student in West Virginia, and she had a totally normal, in-person practicum,” Hodson concedes. “Meanwhile, in other states, no one is accepting volunteers or interns.”

The level of uncertainty surrounding employment prospects for new graduates raises the question: Should library programs reduce the number of students they accept? MacLean thinks so. “Canada is really overloaded with LIS graduates, especially Ontario,” he says. “There’s not enough jobs for everyone.”

Executive functioning

Ohio-based Bradbury Miller Associates has conducted executive searches for libraries since 1983. In the past year, “every library I’ve talked to, it’s really rare to hear that they didn’t lay anybody off,” says president and owner Karen Miller. Yet she reports that during the pandemic, her firm has been just as busy as ever, for one inarguable reason: “When they’re doing layoffs, it’s the director who stays.”

During the economic crisis of 2008, she says, library directors and other high-level administrators were less likely to retire; instead they wanted to weather the storm because of financial issues. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’re seeing more retirements, [and they are] for health reasons,” Miller says. “When you’re older, typically you’re at the peak of your career. If you’ve been working for 30 years, you may be more likely to have health concerns”—particularly when a highly infectious disease is plaguing most of the globe.

The pandemic has served as a disruptor—not only in the roles libraries play but also in terms of the skills you need to be successful as a library leader.—John Keister, owner of library and nonprofit executive search firm John Keister and Associates in Vernon Hills, Illinois

Those seeking directorship positions may find themselves (relatively) spoiled for choice for an additional reason. Changing expectations of the director’s role are making it “more difficult to attract and hire top-notch library leaders,” says John Keister, who with his wife Beth owns library and nonprofit executive search firm John Keister and Associates in Vernon Hills, Illinois. “I have definitely seen the demand increase.” In his view, “the pandemic has served as a disruptor—not only in the roles libraries play but also in terms of the skills you need to be successful as a library leader, the expectations library boards have for a library leader, and our perception of the role of the public library in the community.”

He’s thinking specifically of public libraries, where, he says, the expectations for directors have changed dramatically in the last year alone. “It used to be that to become a library director, it was also a role of keeping the lights on and books on the shelf,” Keister says. “Now the public library director is an ambassador of the library to a community. This is not a happy thought, but when you’re looking at a candidate for a director, if there was a tragedy at your library and CNN was parked outside, will that person be able to keep their composure and speak on behalf of the library in a crisis? You have to be politically savvy now to be an effective library leader. I tell library boards: Everybody wants to be assistant director, but nobody wants to be director.”

To help address this gap, Keister is encouraging library boards to consider a different type of applicant. “Most boards are like, ‘We need someone who’s got all this experience,’ and I’m saying, ‘No, look at the younger generation,’” he says. “They have passion. They have vision. And they know the expectations and the desires that their generation and young families need out of the public library.”

He points to an analysis of Pew Research Center survey data from fall 2016 finding that 53% of millennials reported using a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months, compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of baby boomers, and 36% of people over 70. “Millennials are the most ardent library fans,” he says.

The months ahead

For lower-level library job seekers, is there any relief in sight? “From just an anecdotal perspective, I’m maintaining a positive perception,” Perrello says. “As fiscal budgets are being renewed across the country after January 1, we’re starting to see more and more entry-level professional LIS job postings suddenly starting to come back.”

House’s experience at INALJ bears that out. “The biggest thing I noticed right away when jobs started coming more regularly in the early autumn was that managerial and director-level positions were the first to come back at volume, followed by organizations cluster-hiring librarians—this may be due to previously suspended searches—followed very recently by seeing more staff positions that do not require an MLIS,” she says.

The job market’s current recovery is being fueled, Connolly says, by the ongoing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as well as by the realization that funding has not plunged as drastically as many feared it would. “Last year, the contraction [in available jobs] was caused more by uncertainty about where we were and what would happen than it was by anything that had actually happened to budgets yet,” he says. Now, in his view, “municipal governments and higher education institutions have not seen tax revenues fall as significantly as they worried they might. That’s encouraging libraries to fill positions.”

That said, he expects the job market recovery to level off at some point. “Obviously there’s still going to be some caution [in hiring] for a while,” he says. “I don’t know quite at what point we’re going to plateau. I’ve estimated that next year might run about 80% of normal.”

Adds House: “It still feels like we are far from a true recovery or a pre-pandemic jobs level, but slowly getting there.”

*Name changed at source request.


Illustration: Man does virtual interview at home with laptop, wearing shirt and tie with pajama bottoms and slippers (Illustration: Shane Tolentino)

The Virtual Job Hunt

Here’s how to stand out, both as an applicant and an employer

Good Job Hunting

How to make “You’re hired!” happen