The iconic image of library workers pushing book trucks is quickly slipping into obsolescence. According to figures from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), student employment in libraries dropped 23 percent between 2000 and 2010, while support staff declined 16 percent. If the 2008 recession played a role in these declines, it somehow failed to prevent the library professional category from rising 9 percent in the same period. In fact, it is the evolving nature of library work that is driving these changes, not the recession. Lower skill library work is disappearing, and it will never come back…
All of the library positions that survive the disappearance of physical piecework will require higher skills. The shift of scholarship to digital formats has obliged everyone to become conversant in systems, data management, and increasingly challenging technologies. None of these changes diminishes the centrality of traditional library and advanced disciplinary expertise. On the contrary, fluency in the new skill areas only adds to the complexity, and cost, of library workers.
The digital scholarship paradigm shift is far from having run its course. The scholarly monograph, having remained stubbornly print-based, appears finally poised to make its leap to digital formats. The impact of this leap on the nature of academic work is certain to be as compelling as it is unpredictable, but its impact on lower skill library workers has the feeling of grim inevitability. The disappearing book truck is a fitting metaphor: the scholarly ebook will put an end to lower skill print book-oriented jobs as surely as ejournals put an end to print journal jobs. There appears to be no bottom for the steep and sudden decline in lower skill employment in research libraries.
HOW LIBRARIES & STAFF CAN MANAGE THIS TRANSITION
The proper response of research library administration is an assertive approach to process analysis, but one couched in a context of supportive human resource programming. For example, a combination of skills inventory and training can enable staff to take on new responsibilities. The natural occurrence of vacancies may provide opportunities for organizational solutions.
And what of the lower skill library workers themselves? The disappearance of library work appropriate for undergraduates is troubling as yet another obstacle to affording college, and to the extent to which on-campus employment contributes to retention. There may be no solution to this problem. There is much more hope, however, for full-time library staff performing lower skill work. Support staff positions are professionalizing at every level in the library, not just those in IT areas. The surest path to job security is to seek out opportunities to learn the new or higher order skills that research libraries desperately need…
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor