Supply and Demand

I went to college at a time and place where many, many, many people wanted to be professors. I even have fantasies of being an English Literature PhD, or maybe a Comparative American Studies professor. But for me, at least, and probably many of my former classmates, pursuing the PhD and the professorship wasn’t worth it.

We heard stories of only 13 tenure-track History slots open nationwide, 7 tenure-track English professorships, etc – and hundreds of PhDs coming out of grad school. We heard of people hunting for years (like 7, 8, 9+ years) for a stable job, waiting it out by adjuncting or acquiring fellowships. We saw our own visiting professors leave their children, their spouses, their parents, etc. in order to come teach for limited terms – some as long as 3 years, others as short as 4 months. And we knew most of those visiting faculty would be visiting somewhere else after their stint with us.

Yeah, a PhD and traditional professorship didn’t look too promising.

For me, that meant setting my sights on something else that 1) I liked, that 2) paid, that 3) was more stable than adjuncting. That thing was librarianship.

I was lucky: I secured a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college months before I graduated library school. That’s in part because the market for academic librarians is different than the market for more traditional professorship. But just because it’s different doesn’t necessarily make the job market easy for librarians.

In libraries, due to automation and shrinking budgets, there are fewer and fewer staff and faculty. Which means fewer and fewer available jobs for LIS professionals (in academic, public, school, special libraries). And the professionals privileged enough to have jobs might only be part time, or are doing the work of 2+ people. There’s enough work to go around, it seems, and yet no initiative to hire any more people.

*

One Thanksgiving during my time at grad school, I was talking to my uncle. He was on the school board in his district, and was talking about how the schools needed librarians. It seemed, to him and that school board, that there was a severe lack of school librarians to hire.

“Why don’t you become a school librarian?” he asked. “We need them.”

There are plenty of reasons I knew I was not meant to be a school librarian. Rather than detail those nuances – including that I had no desire to get a teaching certificate – I just cut straight to the easiest topic for people to understand. “It doesn’t pay enough.”

“Well, if schools really need librarians, they’ll pay more for them,” he said.

I shrugged, shaking my head. “It doesn’t always work that way.”

My uncle was thinking of the idea of supply and demand. If the demand is high (the schools need librarians) and the supply is low (there aren’t enough librarians), librarians would cost more. The schools would compete with each other, by paying more money, in order to get librarians.

Basically any librarian knows that supply and demand doesn’t seem to work for libraries. Is it because libraries are at least ideologically separate from markets (i.e. patrons don’t pay for library services or materials), so therefore we don’t hire staff based on market principles? Is it because there are clearly other constraints beyond supply and demand? Or is it because librarians don’t have value in the way other professions have? (If a hospital needed a doctor, it would increase the salary to get one – rather than keeping open a job posting that listed the salary as half of what a physician should make.)

And I assure you, there is no lack of librarians. But there is a lack of places that will pay for one.

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John Warner writes about supply and demand in academia for Inside Higher Ed. He notes how tenured faculty retire or quit, and are never replaced. Even if it’s quite clear a professor is needed – i.e. there are still students and the institution hires adjuncts to teach the former tenured professor’s courses. And even when Humanities departments see a decrease in enrollment, tenured faculty in that department aren’t let go. Supply and demand…doesn’t seem to work there.

And it doesn’t seem to work for librarians.

I have seen this in every place I’ve worked: there’s enough work and need for more staff and librarians. I luxuriate in the thought of having an Electronic Resource Librarian (or more!); others pine for an Instructional Design Librarian, a Copyright and Licensing Librarian, a Scholarly Communications Librarian, an Access Services Librarian, a Metadata Librarian. We have the work for them – there’s that demand. But it’s not like any of the libraries I’ve worked for is going out and acquiring these librarians.

*

I asked one of my coworkers – mostly rhetorically – if we had an oversupply of librarians or academics, or an under-supply of jobs. At the time, I had only ever heard is that there are too many academics / librarians, that LIS and other programs are being irresponsible in producing so many graduates. I wasn’t expecting another answer.

But my coworker said, “We could be like the 70s, where all the PhDs had jobs and departments were fully staffed.”

We, or our institutions, or the powers-that-be, have decided that our universities and libraries don’t need to be fully staffed. We might need more full-time professors and librarians (demand) and there are plenty of highly qualified candidates (supply). But, the way things are, supply and demand doesn’t have anything to do with academic jobs.

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