Moving beyond the “too many degrees/too few jobs” argument

CERN tape library

The argument about LIS programs and jobs is old. Older than Luke Perry when he played a 16-year-old on “90210” (and that reference shows how old I am, but whatever). There are not enough jobs. Or more accurately, there is only a finite number of jobs and everyone who graduates will not be able to get one. Is this because library programs are graduating too many people with LIS degrees? Is this because there are too many graduates coming out with no solid work experience who are being passed over? Is it because older librarians or archivists are being “greedy”? Maybe a bit of everything? Maybe none of those things. Who knows? Who cares? I like to deal in reality. People need to eat. They need to live. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to make that happen in a job with living wages. Everyone. Including the person who last served you lunch at a restaurant, or the person who picks up the trash outside your house or the person who asked you for spare change outside of the subway. I won’t talk about librarians/archivists and jobs without talking about everyone else and jobs. But anyway, you got a degree. You want to have a library or archives job. You are frustrated because it does not seem to be happening. You really want it, though. You really love the profession. You really love books and working with old pieces of paper and obsolete media. You love going to conferences. You’re handy with cat GIFs and Python and you’ve memorized all the episodes of “Doctor Who” in addition to Dewey Decimal categories. You got a book tattoo, for heaven’s sake. All of those things are wonderful. But no one cares.

You still need to eat. So what did getting an MLS do? If you went to a good program, it taught you a few skills and some theory. The skills should be concrete and easily categorized. You likely learned how to put together a rudimentary website or encode a finding aid (technology), you learned about information literacy (reference/critical analysis/research), and you probably did hella presentations and wrote hella papers (communications skills). Ideally you did some reading so you understand theories behind use of controlled vocabulary or copyright and privacy. Hopefully you got some hands-on training, too. I’m not touching the volunteer vs. paid argument in this essay, suffice to say that I run a *paid* internship program, but I digress.

Now think about jobs in which those skills could be applied outside of libraries or archives. Then apply for some of those jobs until you get one. That’s it. Use what you have and try to live. There are bigger things happening outside of the LIS school/jobs conundrum (which itself is simply a manifestation of our economy’s larger sickness), like a scaling back of voter rights laws, climate change-related weather, 1984-type surveillance on our phones and ack, the Kardashians are everywhere. The new rules of our economy dictate survival. We’re all just out here trying to survive. And unless you’re willing to actively rise up, fight or die against the republic tomorrow and demand living wages and jobs for all, you’re complicit in and need to work within this paradigm. Simple. Survival.

You want a job in libraries, go for it. Be hungry like Eminem on his first album. Don’t stop trying. But in the meantime, use those LIS skills to get something that will put a roof over your head. What you will likely find in the meantime is that the job you took is going to give you added skills that could help you get a job in the librarianship or archives. You had to take shifts at Starbucks? They offer healthcare and in the meantime, you are honing critical people skills that are clutch for reference or managerial work (because really, you think people are going to be less demanding when they want a venti latte vs. when they’re looking for a book that they can’t remember anything about except that it has a blue cover). Working in an office with documents and paperwork? You’re learning key things about organization and metadata. You volunteering at a historical society and sleeping in your parents’ basement? Learn how to fix some shit. Spackle a wall for your parents. Learn how to take apart a carburetor (put it back together right though!). You can plug in useful skills anywhere.

So at this point, you’re like “But, yo, I *am* really great and I have done all that personal improvement stuff!” And you point me to your online CV or portfolio which is several pages long and full of unicorn buzzwords. And I would respond: Yo, I know a bunch of really dope people who have had trouble finding library or archives work. This is not easy for anyone. I’ve absolutely been rejected for jobs too, and I’m self-aware enough to say that I bombed quite a few interviews. I looked great on paper but there were times that it didn’t translate in person. Or I made a ridiculous gaffe during the interview. Because I’m human and stuff. Maybe you look great on paper but you’re fucking up IRL. (*shrug*) It happens. Maybe there was an internal hire or some other political factor. Or maybe someone else was, believe or not, better than you. Maybe you had tart interview breath. Maybe the people doing the interview were discriminating against you for who you are (LGBTQ, older/younger, person of color, differently abled, mentally ill, poor, showing religious affiliation — in which case, fuck everyone on that search committee). You could “maybe” yourself to death, or you could start preparing that next resume.

The one thing I will add here is my personal, cultural context. I am an African-American woman who is edging closer to 40. I have been a working professional for 15 years and I’m an 80s baby, so I saw the end of the era where people worked at the same place for 30 years and the beginning of the “these jobs ain’t loyal” era. My parents, who are Boomers, were also of the desegregation era, so in their schools and workplaces, they were frequently the very first black people to ever be in a place. Why does this matter? Context is everything. Because of their experiences in school and the workforce of having to work two and three times harder to overcome the lasting effects of discrimination and racism in society, they instilled the same work ethic into me and my sisters. My relationship to work is that it has not ever just been enough to be “great” in my job. I have to be outstanding. I have to be that unicorn. And generally speaking, always with a smile, lest I be considered “angry” or “hard to work with.” My experience does not negate someone else’s — just giving a little background as to my thought process. I’m not perfect by any measure. I fail, I make mistakes regularly. But this is the mindset that was drilled into me from birth. At no point in time did my parents tell me that I would get anything out of it. They never said that if I did those things I would be guaranteed a job that I wanted, or any job at all, for that matter. I think they just hoped that it would stop me from ever being shot by police during a minor traffic stop or having to ask for money outside of the subway. I’m not unsympathetic or blind to the ways in which certain constructs make it hard for everyone to access the LIS field equally. I have to live with them every day. But with my background, my mind says if you have a master’s degree, you have some skills that will allow you to eat doing something, but maybe you can’t see what that something is yet. Is is libraries? Maybe not.

I regularly edit resumes and cover letters for students. I mentor them and counsel them and have Google Hangouts with them even when I’m so tired my eyes start to cross. In addition to my internship program, I also teach an Archives and Manuscripts Management class in an LIS program, during which I devote an entire week to hacking the job game. Some of my students have gone on to LIS or LAM greatness and I’m happy for them. But all I’ve really tried to teach them to do is live. To use their skills in a way that could get them any number of jobs. And to balance work with a healthy personal life. That’s all you can really do. This can be exhausting. During job searches, I would actively practice self-care. If having that cupcake or cigarette or knitting tree cozies makes you feel better, go for it. No shade. But understand that the very notion of work and labor is under attack in our society and it has been chipped away so much it merely resembles a shell of its former promise. You want to eat? You might not be able to wait for a library or archives job. That’s the reality, but the reality doesn’t have to be bad.