Librarians: a Dying Breed?

A university librarian organizes her reference shelf.

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Will librarians go the way of the soda jerk, telephone operator and travel agent? While libraries are today a vibrant part of the book-industry ecosystem, the extinction of those who run them professionally may be approaching.

According to a new study of the textbook market by Bowker, library information science textbooks generated about 30% less revenue in academic year 2011 (ending in Spring 2011) than in the previous academic year. It topped the chart of “declining” disciplines at this morning’s Book Industry Study Group higher education publishing event in New York.

“It has to be taken into context; it’s a single year,” said Bowker vice president of publishing services Kelly Gallagher, who presented the report. “Is this a long-term trend?”

Gallagher pointed out that students or professors in library information sciences could be making a choice to use fewer textbooks. The statistic was presented in order to give the audience – largely made up of executives at textbook companies – an idea of industry demand.

In a much-discussed May 2011 article in the New York Review of Books titled A Country Without Libraries, Charles Simic wrote, “All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations.”

The article sparked debate on blogs and in social media. Some defended libraries and their role in U.S. democracy. Others declared libraries “obsolete.” Many posts were nostalgia-filled looks at how libraries impacted the author’s childhood.

Even if libraries persist, which they certainly do today (there were 121,785 of them in the U.S. in 2009, according to the American Library Association, an industry group), will librarians persist along with them?

A 2010 paper by Moya K. Mason, a freelance researcher, suggested that librarians with master’s degrees in library sciences are being replaced by “paraprofessionals,” or those who perform the increasingly menial functions that automation has reduced many professions to today. The librarians themselves are training the paraprofessionals to do their jobs, a somewhat suicidal move from an employment standpoint, Mason wrote.

The trope of librarians as a “dying breed” is a familiar one. A Google search on the headline of this article reveals that, indeed, the article has already been written – in 2010 and in 2009, at least. Yet, libraries and librarians are still here, showing a resilience and necessity that the naysayers may not have accounted for.

The American Library Association, queried for an industry perspective on the issue, was not able to immediately respond to requests for comment before press time.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

15 thoughts on “Librarians: a Dying Breed?

  1. david lee king

    Interesting article. Unfortunately, I’m not sure your facts line up with reality. Here’s what I mean:

    1. You quote the Bowker studay that says “library information science textbooks generated about 30% less revenue in academic year 2011.”

    All that really means is this: information science programs aren’t using as many traditional textbooks. It doesn’t really equate to librarians going “the way of the soda jerk.” In fact, you mention that Kelly Gallagher pointed that fact out. So why use it to insinuate that librarians are a dying breed here?

    2. You quote Charles Simic as saying “All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations.”

    Yes, it’s true – some libraries have done exactly that. But “all across the US”? Stats please?

    3. Finally, you mention Moya mason’s paper. Her paper isn’t talking about the profession as a whole – it’s talking about one aspect of the profession (technical services paraprofessionals). And the newest research she quotes is a whopping 15 years old, so again – it’s not really relevant to today’s librarian.

    Instead of writing an article using old research, one person’s observations, and way out-of-context textbook stats, how about writing something that’s at least balanced?

    Or better yet – how about actually talking to some librarians to see what they think?

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Thanks for the comment, David.

      I think you make some good points. I wanted to use the stat from Bowker as a conversation starter more than anything. I believe we did put it into context and also present some possibilities of how it might not be indicative in a decrease in the study of library sciences. You pointed this out in the form of Gallagher’s quotation.

      Regarding the next two citations, I was merely bringing up the opinions and work of others and I believe we put this into appropriate context.

      As for talking to actual librarians, as you can see, I’ve queried the ALA, which I have spoken with before for articles, and it has yet to get back to me. If you have any special relationship with them and can have them get back to me, I’d welcome that.

      The whole article, as the headline indicates, is a question more than an answer. I apologize if that was not clear.

      I also apologize if this post offended you in some way or didn’t meet the high standards that you would expect from DBW. As always, we’ll try to do better next time.

      Jeremy Greenfield

  2. Jeff Scott

    This article stinks of linkbait. The American Library Association wasn’t available before press time? Is this an urgent article? Does Digital Book World need to make print deadlines? You have vague assessments with vague information. I imagine if you talked to someone before you published they would have disabused you of this notion, but then it wouldn’t have been controversial. I expect a little bit better from DBW. Very disappointed.

  3. MLISstudent

    dent I’d like to shed some insight on the Bowker study. Grad students are ever resourceful. Throughout my academic career, I have purchased textbooks from classmates, rented them from Chegg, viewed PDF’s of materials online, and bought used books online from random people and other students. Very rarely do I buy a textbok from a traditional channel such as a publisher or even full price on Amazon.

    I’m flabbergasted that you would use *book sales* figures from 1 publisher as evidence of a profession dying out.

    ps – Civic services are being hit hard everywhere, including libraries. Last time I looked we’re still in a downturn, which means layoffs, consolidation of public services, etc. That is more the reason for the libraries closing than them not being in demand.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      One of the learned things at the BISG conference this morning is, indeed as you said, students are very resourceful. It could be, as we point out, that this stat is not indicative of a downturn in interest in library sciences.

      Also, as we point out, this is not a new conversation. People have been wrongly announcing the death of libraries for some years now. There are, after all, over 100k libraries in the U.S. alone. That’s robust by any measure.

  4. ConsiderJennifer

    Hmmmm…really? You look at libraries over the last several years and you see librarians dying out? I would like to just toss out that maybe it isn’t that we are becoming obsolete but that we are changing. I agree with David’s comment that the information you are using to make these inferences is lacking.

    I would encourage you to look into what librarians are doing in regard to;

    – Embedded librarianship
    – Librarian as teacher
    – Educational Technology
    – Knowledge Management
    – Censorship and the Internet
    – Information Literacy

    among other things.

    And be sure to ask if you have any questions, it is after all what we do! 🙂

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Thanks for the comment!

      Libraries seem to be doing fine and as a lover of libraries myself I would hate to see them go away and can think of a million ways in which they’ve changed and in which they will continue to change. Oh, and the protector of our democracy argument? I agree with it completely.

      That said, this item wasn’t meant to be a final statement about anything, especially whether libraries are dying. It was meant to be a conversation-starter about librarians. If there are fewer librarians around next year, and the year after that because fewer are achieving MLS degrees and fewer are buying textbooks, then that’s something to talk about.

      So, to respond to your final line, here’s my question: Do you think there will be fewer librarians in the U.S. in five years, or more?

      1. ConsiderJennifer

        I would ask, how are you defining librarians? What are we?

        To be direct though I don’t think so. Library curriculum needs to adapt and that is certainly happening in many ways. Not every librarian is just an MLS, they are now MLIS or even MIS.

        I also really believe that librarians are librarians in spirit despite what new job title they may take on. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet right? Librarians are connectors between the question and the answer or to think of it another way – we assist in surveying the information landscape when someone has a need.

  5. Lauren Pressley

    My concerns are all articulated in the comments that have already posted, but still felt compelled to leave a note. The anecdotal and out-of-context information doesn’t make a case for anything–except that this article needed better research. (Which is exactly what librarians we can help people do.)

    There is nothing to infer from a decrease in textbook sales for a discipline. It could be due to resourceful students, it could be that faculty are experimenting with open access publications, it could be that the content in the field is changing so rapidly that faculty rely on web-based content and articles, or any other number of things. It’s irresponsible to draw conclusions from it, and the title and leading sentences from this post do not seem to be written to encourage conversation, but to be provocative.

  6. Robert Banks

    I won’t belabor points sufficiently addressed by others except to support their thoughts. I have thoughts about this comment made near the end of your post,

    \Yet, libraries and librarians are still here, showing a resilience and necessity that the naysayers may not have accounted for.\

    ConsiderJennifer made several excellent comments about what Librarians are doing today.

    Life is changing, society is changing and Librarians are changing to meet our public where they are. In many cases, Librarians are on the cutting edge of technology and provide the \safe and comfortable\ place for people to connect with new technology. We teach classes from beginning computers to advanced spreadsheets. I conduct a beginning iPad class that is full every time it is offered. Our library had a smart phone app before many in our community had a smart phone. Librarians realize that people need to be able to function in today’s world and for a myriad of reasons don’t or can’t do it on their own. We are there to bridge the gap, as we have been at other times in history. Will Librarians be here in the future? I confidently say, YES!\ We just won’t be doing the things that we did 20 years ago.

    It is interesting that you chose the words, \resilience and necessity.\ I believe those are characteristics of Librarians through the ages. We began preparing \electronic\ catalog records long before the computer became ubiquitous in the library. We developed collections of LP’s,audio books, movies, etc. early in their existence. Those actions were necessary to remain relevant to our users. They also helped us remain resilient in changing times.

    I predict that Librarians will make connections for the public to their world and train them on the latest technology long after tweets and blogs are gone; because we are resilient and necessary .

  7. Michael J. Lowrey

    I’m sorry if some of your readers (especially David) are living in a fantasy land, but the fact is that library hours are being slashed nationwide; and almost all public schools and all but the mostly heavily-subsidized private ones have either eliminated librarians completely or have made draconian staff cuts. If you want precise numbers, David, just contact your local school board, local city or county library system, and your state Department of Public Instruction or equivalent. Better yet, ask your local AFSCME, NEA and AFT affiliates, who can recite the grim statistics by heart.

    1. david lee king

      Michael – just for the record, I WORK in a county library system, and we’re doing fine. I’ll simply second what I said earlier – where are your stats on this? Especially when you say “almost all public schools…” ? Really? I say prove it.

  8. Jen Hannen

    I work in a public library and things have gone seriously downhill in our system for the last couple of years. Temps are starting to outnumber the permanent employees, and many hard working well-liked people have quit out of frustration. If you research modern library design, the trend seems to be big open quiet spaces/incredibly modern buildings that rely more on automation than people. I think we will still have a need for community centers with programming – but a lot of our programming is done for free by people such as local authors, people that want to get their name out like musicians, etc. Someone needs to be in charge of a digital collection, or maybe to answer reference questions online, but when you no longer need people to show up in person – clerks, para-professionals, reference librarians, and management – then what? I personally am getting a degree in something different at this point. I hope I don’t quit out of frustration as well! Let me add I have worked in libraries almost all my life because I absolutely love them! I find the current situation sad – but it is a result of the digital age. Also, I am not sure if university libraries are going to be affected in the same way – hopefully not.

  9. Lauren Castillo

    It is now 2016 and I just ran across this article. I am a public librarian and we are busy because we serve a disadvantaged socioeconomic area who depend on the library . But I can see that our library will be split into two separate avenues towards children and the other technology-based services. Money is limited so you have to bring in free programming or heavily sponsored ones.I was trained and it was drilled into our workshops at work that customer service is #1 but now I found out really we are according to those in charge we are more “productive” off the reference desk. I am not suited for management and have 20 more years to work. I feel like I have a good job and am interested in technology but feel insecure about falling behind or not being relevant. Any ideas ?



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