thoughts on getting a library degree, part II

Two years ago I wrote a two-part series about getting a degree in librarianship (I didn’t exactly recommend it) and finding a job in the library and information science field (I suggested starting as soon as possible and looking outside the field). The year before, I’d written about my own job hunt, a miserable, soul-sucking four year quest. Today, I saw a question on Facebook asking about current data, and whether the field is as over-saturated as the questioner felt. And so I’m going to do a redux, in this year of COVID and hellscapes and unfilled jobs, about getting a degree in librarianship.

Before I launch fully into this, I’m going to do a bit of a disclaimer. I’m desperately tired, folks. When I did that scientific burnout quiz (this is what I think of that, but anyway), I scored so high I was tripping over the edge of their highest scores. I have a shitty immune system and a track record of god-awful illness, including that time I missed a year of school, and that other time I was too ill to see a friend off to Hong Kong, and had to almost re-learn walking after being in bed for months. I have a jacked-up heart and a tendency to fibrillate and pretty bad lungs, and I’ve been working in person since June 2020. I’m really, really tired, and I’m pretty isolated, and, people, I don’t want to send someone else into a situation that might break me. So there’s your disclaimer.

We’ve been told for years—I think it’s been at least thirty—that there will be a great wave of retirements, cresting tomorrow, or the day after. The great retirement wave has never happened. I’m pretty sure it will never happen. People can’t afford to retire (the pay is pretty shitty in this field, and most positions require a Master’s, and sometimes two). Not everyone wants to retire right away. People retire at different times, which is actually great as it means that all the experience isn’t lost at once. There will never be a great wave of retirements. Not ever.

Except that there almost was one, over the past year and a half of plague and in-person service and the demand for librarians and library staff to put their bodies and their lives (and their families’ lives) on the line during COVID. Libraries across the country—including the one at which I work—have seen waves of retirements, though still nothing like the great cresting wave we’ve been told is coming. (It isn’t.) But those jobs are going unfilled. Nearly all open academic job searches were cancelled at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic, and few have re-opened in the months since. Very few of the jobs lost to retirements and resignations have been filled, which is a constant dismal discussion point on library Twitter.

Should you get a library degree? I’ll be honest: I really don’t think so. Get one only if you’re already working at a library. Get one if your job will help cover the cost. Don’t pay for it yourself, ever. If for whatever reason you’re determined, take courses outside academic or public or special librarianship; try to ensure you’ll be hireable across the spectrum of possible workplaces, from universities to corporations and beyond. A good library degree can be a useful thing, providing a strong background not just in tech support but also in working with people. They aren’t all good, and to be honest, I don’t think many—or even any—are worth the cost, at least not right now.

There are some really amazing people in librarianship, people moving and shaking and trying to force the profession into a more equitable tomorrow. But the field is also abusive. It’s cold and calculating, asking people to take on the work of five or six or seven, demanding that they give of themselves, more and more and more. This past year has been a bit of a culmination, the ugly showcase, in those demands for in-person service and self-sacrifice, of vocational awe. Library workers have been put on the front lines of a pandemic, without training, without protection, without support of any kind.

Should you get a library degree? My God. Probably not. It is an honorable field, and the work we do is essential, or can be, if we can move beyond the false god of neutrality. But it is not worth your life, or your body, or your sanity. So whatever you do, take care of yourself. No one else will.