Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Fixing the First Job By Ria Newhouse & April Spisak -- 8/15/2004

Taken from the Library Journal

I think that all managers should read this... all the complaints that are being voiced out by librarians. Interestingly... most of my colleagues are able to relate to how the librarians from across the world are feeling as we feel the same way too.

New librarians speak out on problems in the profession

We are new librarians. In our first year, after coming up against bureaucratic brick walls and resistance to new ideas for libraries, we were almost convinced that the field of librarianship was virtually unchangeable. In our frustration, we wanted desperately to interact with other first-year librarians adjusting to their new careers. We decided to make a project of our plight and to solicit systematically opinions from other new librarians. We know now that librarianship is changing, and we are sure all librarians, new and experienced, need to understand and nurture that change. The reactions that follow derive from our small sampling of 124 new librarians who have been on the job for a year or less.

The story inside the survey
Despite the large majority in our sample who found their LIS programs adequate, who liked their first jobs, and who found their libraries to be open and affirming places for new librarians, there was another story from the new librarians. A substantial minority and even some of the approving majority commented in follow-up questioning and discussion on lists about the negative aspects and drawbacks of their experience as new librarians. These responses specified problems with their education, their job situations, and their interactions with veteran librarians.
Most of the new librarians (55.6 percent) agreed that library science classes prepared them well and taught them skills they use now. Only 26.1 percent disagreed. Many added very positive comments about their schools and LIS programs. Fifty-seven percent agreed with the statement, "I feel happy in my workplace." Answers were scattered across the scale, but only 18.3 percent were specifically unhappy in their libraries.

A healthy majority (61.1 percent) of respondents agreed with the statement, "I feel that I will spend my career as a public librarian." Most who didn't agree said they were interested in academic, school, or special libraries. A solid 83.2 percent of librarians over the age of 30 indicated that they would spend their entire career as public librarians, but only 50 percent of those under 30 expected to stay in public libraries. Clearly, many young librarians do not see themselves and their goals reflected in the field and state unequivocally that they do not plan to stay.

Most (57.9 percent) agreed with the final statement, "Libraries are an open and affirming place for new librarians." Their appended anecdotes revealed that the first year seems to make or break new librarians. Many said it takes huge doses of openness and affirmation (some of which could refer to proper training, adherence to the tenets of librarianship, appropriate feedback and rewards, and specific attempts to recruit new professionals) to overcome a new librarian's feelings of being overwhelmed, underappreciated, disillusioned, and underpaid.
The generally positive reactions of most new librarians are testament that a library career can bring fulfillment, even at the beginning, but the large minority who disagreed, coupled with the many from the majority who volunteered commentary on the problems of new librarians, reveal a set of concerns to which the profession should pay attention. We believe these issues are far more pervasive than our small sample could reveal. They could mean a major staff problem for libraries when the economy improves, and the predicted shortage of professionals materializes.

The LIS programs
Two statements focused specifically on the relationship between graduate school programs and library practice. The responses do not reveal any of the wide-ranging concerns raised in follow-up questions and discussions on electronic lists. There are drastic differences in quality and tremendous variety among American Library Association (ALA)–accredited LIS programs. Programs require a range from nine months to 2.5 years of study. The most expensive program charges $43,000 a year, yet in-state tuition at publicly supported universities is frequently less than $5000 a year. Most programs have two to three required "core" courses. A few had no required courses, while others required as many as six. Despite these dramatic differences, all recent LIS graduates felt the program expects them to graduate with a set of skills equal to other programs and to be ready to meet the same job expectations found in common job listings. These listings usually include knowledge of cataloging and reference, job experience, knowledge of library programming for patrons, and knowledge of all relevant databases and circulation systems.

A majority of new librarians named specific classes they wish had been offered in their LIS studies. Some of these were probably offered but not frequently enough to be available to all graduates from a given LIS program. In broad subject groups, the most "wanted" courses were in cataloging, budgeting, programming, readers' advisory, management, fundraising, grantwriting, marketing, advanced reference, and patron services. Patron services, though nebulous, was the most suggested area, with some elaboration asking that it deal with difficult patrons, collection development for specific populations, conflict management, and policy development.

Some felt classes on story times, programming, or dealing with problem patrons were inappropriate for a professional degree, while others felt that library school degrees simply need to be more practical. Many new librarians, both in our survey and in nexgenlib discussions, felt unprepared to perform a reference interview, organize and implement programming, or work at collection development.

No more martyrs
This feeling of inadequacy in these new public librarians, who work where training is often minimal and expectations of new librarians are high, is an important problem for the profession. Almost every survey respondent stated that they wanted "less theory" and "more practicality" from their LIS programs. The disconnect between graduate school programs and actual employment was obvious. To tell new librarians to "jump right in" when they consistently say they feel that they only know theory is a bad idea. It has clearly led many first-year librarians to feel overwhelmed and even defeated. One survey respondent summed up her opinion about the course work for her degree: "I understand the drive toward theory-based LIS education, but it's hard to succeed in a job interview where you're competing with people who have experience and all you have is theory."

The reasons the new librarians decided to enter the profession are the same as those of the generations that went before. They love "seeing teens get excited" or working "one-on-one with children and young people." New to this "helping" work for this generation of librarians is working with patrons and the online catalog, searching powerful databases stocked with full-text articles, and using all the other electronic devices that tell us that the tools of our profession have changed, although the reasons we have for becoming librarians are the same. The new librarians like interacting with the public, dealing with appreciative patrons, and seeing people smile when their information needs are met. We new librarians like to help people, and we do it well.If there is a difference between these new librarians and more experienced ones, it is their unwillingness to take on the role of "librarian-as-martyr." They will not accept the traditionalist nature of librarianship. They are unhappy with the way libraries are run and operated. They dislike the lack of openness to new ideas and new colleagues, the low pay they are forced to endure, and the true shortage of jobs. While 56 percent were happy in their jobs, nearly all named issues that kept them from saying, "I love my job."

First job problems
Many respondents listed specific problems with that first job. Top among them was the difficulty new librarians have discovering their role in their job and in the field. They come from LIS programs, bright-eyed and eager, but with very little practical training. They are dumped into jobs that stifle their commitment to intellectual freedom and require them to become ciphers in the library bureaucracy. They naïvely believed what the graduate schools told them, that they were supposed to be agents of change.

They did not anticipate rigid upper administrations or the red tape that binds every decision-making process in many libraries. One librarian's administration requires "every flyer, program, purchase, etc., to be approved," so that "doing anything new is difficult." Often efforts to help people are restrained by the red tape that surrounds every decision to implement change. Even those who didn't find bureaucracy report that change rarely occurs, owing to blatant resistance. The phrase "because it's always been done that way" became the joking mantra for the new librarians on discussion lists. One participant was urged to "provide new services and be innovative," when ideas were regularly squelched with comments like "that won't work/we've never done that before." That library, said the report, is "currently top-heavy with staff members who have spent their entire library careers [t]here." It was no surprise that "new ideas make them feel threatened."

A bright, enthusiastic, and eager generation of librarians have hit walls trying to do their jobs. Just as older colleagues promised, we are losing our idealism. Many of these new librarians aren't sure they want to stick around to see that idealism wane, along with their enthusiasm and new ideas.

Then there's the pay
New librarians face salary woes coupled with crippling debt. Most are paying back the loans they had to take out to get the six years of education required to work in a career that can't pay them what they're worth. The result is often tragic. While working a full-time professional position, many wait on tables at night or find other part-time work. They can't afford to live alone and can't even imagine a time when they will be able to own a house or drive a newer car.
It is not uncommon for a new librarian to pay more than a quarter of his or her salary to student loan agencies. Survey participants openly discussed debts of $60,000 to $80,000 in student loans. Many librarians traditionally came from two-income families, but many new librarians are single and content that way. They are attempting to pay their student loans, prepare for retirement, and live a generally good life on $30,000/year. For this generation of librarians, the problem is not just low pay—it is low pay and high debt that is often a result of the rising cost of education.

What drives us nuts!
There were a lot of "little" or "minor" issues that drive new librarians nuts. Dress codes were high on the list, along with other oppressive personnel policies. The younger new librarians yearn to wear shirts that don't cover up their tattoos and multiple piercings. They wonder what is wrong with wearing a small and simple nose ring to an interview. They don't understand why women are required to wear pantyhose every day. They wonder why library administrators don't respond more receptively to the changing face of society by letting their librarians reflect that change.

How much work?
In a major break with baby boomers, the new librarians don't like to work more hours than those for which they're paid. The clash of generations is most apparent in this work ethic. While baby boomers will work until the job is done and have been trained that they should be thankful for their jobs (even if it means staying until 11 on their kid's birthday), new librarians are suspicious of staying after 5 p.m. They willingly give their employers eight solid hours a day, rather than ten hours loaded with resentment. They want flexible scheduling. They want to be paid for all the hours they work. The new librarians are trying to achieve a healthy balance between work and life—and work doesn't always win.

When they discuss the idea of being directors or part of management, many demur. As much as one wants to be a director to bring about the change so desperately needed right now, another won't even think about management because of the high time commitment and the low pay. As one said, "The things I always considered 'librarian-like' and appealing to me have nothing to do with being a director."

The tattoos are staying
The new librarians know their concerns echo the experiences of more seasoned colleagues, but they also say it is very difficult to find that experience documented in print or discussed before conference audiences. The new librarians are already tired of the collective moan-and-groan session. They would remind their elders that these issues are new to them. They believe they can begin to force change by naming what is not working for them. They want to work across the lines of age, race, gender, and every other line to bring librarians together to try to fix these chronic problems of the profession.

So what can be done? Embrace change. Use the newest generation of librarians to your benefit. Their ideas can help you connect to an entirely new patron base in an entirely new way. They promise you good things. They know they are not the first generation of new librarians to struggle for a place and recognition within the field.As each new generation of librarians comes into public libraries, the veterans and the new librarians must learn again to work together. To do it, compromise, openness to change, and easy communication are crucial. By identifying a few of these problems and issues, young librarians today are also exposing their vulnerabilities. They want and need connections in the profession, and they are willing to change and adapt in the library world. They wonder who will join them in this work. And they want you all to know the tattoos are staying.

4 Ways to an Open, Affirming Library

SUPPORT THE EDUCATION OF YOUR EMPLOYEE. Survey participants openly discussed debts of $60,000 to $80,000 in student loans. The fiscal message to administrators is simple. Help them pay for library school. Attempt to pay your employees what they're worth. Offer attractive benefits packages and fair salaries. If you are involved in LIS education, offer scholarships and work study opportunities. Fight for reduced tuition.

TRAIN US. Many new librarians named "training" as a need. They don't feel comfortable asking questions all the time. They want to be paired with a mentor or appropriate trainer and be encouraged to continue education and training. One new librarian found being paired with a librarian with long experience for her first two weeks resulted in better on-the-job training and comfortable beginnings. As another said, "All I needed was mentoring, trust, and opportunity."

OFFER PRAISE. New librarians need feedback, praise, and evaluation. Feedback should be timely and honest. "I was really encouraged when they gave me room to try new ideas and then offered positive reactions," said one new librarian. Over 40 percent of new librarians who agreed that their workplaces were "open and affirming" mentioned consistent feedback and noted that time to discuss work performance with supervisors was a very positive part of their first library experience.

BE OPEN TO NEW IDEAS. Almost every new librarian says that openness to new ideas is an essential ingredient of a good first job experience. They liked being treated as valued contributors in a professional atmosphere. In many cases lack of openness to new ideas was a "make or break" issue making an otherwise attractive position intolerable.

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