A Follow-Up Study of the Factors Shaping the Career Choices of Library School Students at the University of Alabama

Stephanie D. Taylor, R. Alexander Perry, Jessica l. Barton, and Brett Spencer

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Our paper presents the results of a survey of MLIS students’ motivations for choosing a library career, as well as their outlook on the job market, preferences for various subfields, and dreams about the future. In 2004 several researchers conducted a survey of MLIS students at the University of Alabama’s School of Library and Information Studies and reported the results in a 2006 RUSQ article. In a field of constant change, it is essential that a new study is conducted to glean current motivations for pursuing a MLIS degree. New technologies, economic issues, and other factors could affect a new generation of librarians’ mind-sets. Therefore we replicated the earlier survey, added some new questions, and compared our results. This article describes the results of the current survey. It shows that myriad reasons motivate students to pursue the MLIS, and librarians who have an interest in their new colleagues will find this paper of interest. We also suggest some practical steps that reference librarians (as well as human resource officers and library school administrators) can follow to recruit new librarians. This paper is based on a poster presented at the Alabama Library Association conference (ALLA), April 10, 2009, in Auburn, Alabama.

Why did you choose a career in library and information science? When we posed this question to a group of MLIS students as part of a recent survey, one student replied, “I have a variety of interests and being a librarian entails doing something different every day.” Another expressed an “enthusiasm for information organization and sharing,” while another said he relished the “service aspects of librarianship.” One leaned toward librarian-ship because she has a “personal disposition for information management.” Another soon-to-be librarian gave the classic reply, “I love books!” and others claimed they loved working in the library or just loved libraries in general. These are but a few of the reasons why students decided to enroll in the University of Alabama’s (UA) School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS). Indeed many reasons exist as to why individuals choose the LIS field. In this article we present the complete results of a survey about UA SLIS students’ motivations for choosing the field as well as their other beliefs and expectations about the profession, and we interpret these findings to provide suggestions for recruiting new librarians.

SLIS graduate assistants at UA conducted a career survey of their fellow students in 2004 and, in a 2006 RUSQ article, published the results along with many recruitment ideas.1 Five years have passed and significant changes have affected the economy, the nation, and consequently LIS field. One of the most important events is the past year’s recession, and this issue clearly must be addressed in relation to potential professionals in LIS careers. Furthermore, the tide of technological change continues unabated, reshaping the landscape of the library field. New subfields have taken form. In addition, more LIS graduate programs offer distance education courses, opening the door for aspiring librarians who might not have had the opportunity to enter the field otherwise. In January 2009, we believed the time had come for a follow-up survey that would find out whether LIS students’ motivations and perceptions had changed in response to these developments.

As three SLIS graduate students and a reference librarian, we realized the importance of learning why students choose the field so that the library profession can actively recruit new members. Over the past few years, leaders in the field have also spoken about the need for more recruitment, emphasizing that the quality and quantity of librarians available will help determine the field’s success. For instance, one president of the American Library Association (ALA) has called upon librarians to try to recruit two new colleagues each year.2 ALA and many of its roundtables and divisions have invested a great deal in developing recruitment tools, and the ALA has even created a “Recruitment Assembly” to coordinate its efforts.3 While recruitment is not normally as crucial an issue for LIS as it is for most professions, the coming wave of retirements from the library field has given an extra impetus to ALA’s recruitment efforts. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008–9 edition, two-thirds of librarians are forty-five years old or over, a demographic fact that translates into an increasing number of retirements and a resulting 4 percent growth in librarian employment between 2006 and 2016.4

On top of this higher rate of attrition, the LIS profession (and reference librarianship in particular) faces an increasingly diverse set of challenges, ranging from the implementation of new information technologies to enhancing information literacy among their patrons. In addition, more and more library jobs are opening up in nontraditional library settings that often require subject expertise. For all these reasons, the LIS field needs to attract highly skilled people with interests, education, and experiences in such areas as technology, teaching, customer service, and specialized fields like medicine and law. The LIS field also needs open-minded people who can adapt to potential rapid changes in the technological and economic environments. And the profession must persevere in its efforts to recruit members who reflect the cultural diversity of the United States.

The long-term trend is toward a continued need to recruit more librarians to both replenish the ranks of retirees and fill new types of library positions. In 2008, Library Journal reported the results from their annual “Placements and Salaries Survey” of LIS graduates and noted that “despite a difficult economy and tightening budgets, both jobs and salaries rose for 2007 grads. . . . All indications from the graduates and the programs responding are that the LIS profession continues to be viable, even healthy, and forward looking.”5 Furthermore, because of the recession, many libraries across the country are experiencing higher use as patrons seek out free library services, a trend that increases the need for librarians. On this note, after reviewing hundreds of careers to find the best job markets during the recession, U.S. News and World Report listed librarian as one of the thirty best careers of 2009.6 Neither has the rise of new technologies negated the role of the librarian; technology has changed librarians’ jobs, but not replaced librarians themselves. Indeed, many libraries need professionals who can carry out traditional librarian functions as well as professionals who can work with the new technologies.

Thus, to maintain the LIS field’s vitality and libraries’ critical mission in American society, reference librarians must help identify and enlist outstanding new professionals who can lead the field into the twenty-first century. Because they work with the public, reference librarians are well positioned to help with recruitment efforts. As many other fields shed jobs during the economic downturn, reference librarians have an excellent opportunity to strengthen their own profession as well as help people who are in the process of changing careers by telling them about the rewards of an LIS career. Leaders within the reference subfield have encouraged reference librarians in their recruitment efforts for the past several years. In particular, Connie Van Fleet and Danny P. Wallace, former editors of RUSQ, have called on the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) to assist local librarians with recruitment.7

Literature Review

The previous RUSQ article reporting the UA SLIS students’ career preferences offered an exhaustive review of the literature up to 2004. Since then, there have been no general studies surveying American LIS students to determine their motivations for attending library school or their decision to pursue LIS as a profession. There have, however, been studies that focus on either a specific type of librarianship or on a specific aspect of library career development (such as recruitment or salaries) also covered by our study.

For example, Shannon used focus groups and surveys to discover why individuals chose school librarianship as a path of study and future career. Employability and career flexibility were the primary factors.8 In 2006, the first two issues of Science & Technology Libraries, were dedicated entirely to recruitment. Pellack describes ways to increase the appeal of science librarianship,9 while Smith offers strategies that LIS educators can use to recruit science and technology (sci-tech) librarians. Smith recommends increasing access to degree programs via web technologies and fostering partnerships with sci-tech librarians.10 Kim and Sin used a Web-based survey to develop better recruitment strategies for students from minority groups. Among their suggested strategies are financial support, work opportunities, recruitment programs with more proactive and tailored advertisements, and personal contact with people from minority groups.11 Hines and Baker surveyed 180 business librarians to examine why these librarians chose the profession and to explore their careers prior to entering the library field. The previous careers listed were varied; the top three, however, were library paraprofessionals, administrative assistants, and teachers. The top influencing factor was job function.12

Issa and Nwalo surveyed 1,128 Nigerian LIS students and found that only 472 listed LIS as their first choice of study. The report concludes that among the 472, the most common reason for choosing LIS is prior work experience in libraries, and the second most common reason is job security.13 Dewey and Keally conducted a case study at the University of Tennessee to develop techniques for recruiting academic librarians with culturally diverse backgrounds. The authors discuss the cultural role academic libraries play in students’ lives, thus making diversity an important quality among the library staff that serve the students, and recommend that librarians ally themselves with other national and international organizations when creating recruitment strategies that emphasize cultural diversity.14 In addition to these newer studies, Library Journal has continued to conduct its annual placements and salaries survey of library schools and graduates.

Concurrent with this study is the ongoing Workforce Issues in LIS (WILIS) project led by researchers at the School of Information and Library Science and the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Their project, in two phases, investigates some of the issues addressed in our study and it will contribute to the profession’s understanding of career and educational factors.15

Thus, while several recent studies have focused on specific LIS subfields or occupational issues, none give an overview of the many career influences and motivations of the general LIS student in the United States. This suggests the need for an update to the 2004 UA career survey. Replicating the 2004 study highlights important developments in the field caused by technology’s unrelenting growth, job market changes, and economic turbulence. It can also illustrate effective methods of recruitment by giving LIS practitioners a clearer understanding of current LIS students.

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