This post comes from a guest poster, Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.
The Bookish Blues: When Librarianship Becomes a Dead End Job
Whenever I talk about the topic of dead end jobs, people become defensive. They say, “that isn’t my experience” or “that doesn’t describe my workplace.” I have come to understand that everyone’s work experience is different. We each have our own individual hopes, goals, dreams, and aspirations. There are organizations where one person can flourish while others languish. Our society is also shifting in good and bad ways which has created funding gaps, changing job duties, and intense patron/employee interactions. My goal isn’t to shame or blame. It is to start a dialogue about how libraries and management can create inclusive environments where everyone can learn and earn.
A definition of a dead end job is one in which there is little opportunity for promotion or advancement, a lack of pay increases, repetitive tasks, low autonomy, and a negative work culture. A good salary and a fancy job title do create a rewarding career however it has to be balanced with a positive and creative work culture. Most people spend more time at work than they do with their own families. Dynamic and healthy workplaces have high engagement, enhanced creativity, low absenteeism, and improved retention.
I think that the COVID-19 pandemic intensified a lot of the issues that individuals were dealing with. The great resignation and quiet quitting trends speak to people who are sick and tired of soul-crushing, dead-end jobs. These trends have new names but they fall into the category of employee engagement and satisfaction. While I acknowledge that with some creativity and initiative, library workers can continue to grow and improve regardless of the work environment. These efforts take time, money, and energy to implement properly which are in short supply nowadays.
Many people think of their library career as terminal meaning that they are happy to be a library worker and don’t want to advance to the next step due to lack of interest, high stress, and wanting to maintain a personal connection with users. A lot of individuals didn’t want to go into management which is often the next step on the career ladder. Even if they did want to go, there is no guarantee that an individual’s boss will leave or that they’ll want or get their job.
Work culture celebrates a constant “busyness” as a marker of social and professional success. In libraries, it often feels as if we are being called to do more with less. Often, people take on additional work responsibilities for no additional pay. They feel that it is an opportunity for them to pick up extra skills in addition to their regular job duties. The extra work and effort that was once celebrated now becomes expected.
For librarians, it is not that library work is low pay, it is that individuals must have so many degrees and education that it isn’t comparable to what others are making with similar education levels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for librarians was $29.81 /hr ($62,280 /yr) in May 2020. However, it is important to note that salaries vary depending on the type of library and the location.
Paraprofessional staff (executive assistants, marketing, HR, accountants, library associates, IT, security) are often close to minimum wage in some workplaces. They earn on average $22/hr ($46,000 /yr) according to Library Journal’s 2022 Library Job Satisfaction Survey. In Denver where I live, the minimum wage is $17.29 /hr ($35,963 /yr). The rising costs of rent and inflation across the nation make it difficult for some individuals to live in their local community.
Contingent workers are a third category of worker that we rarely talk about. These workers are often part time, temporary, on-call, seasonal, and contract employees. These positions are the definition of dead end jobs yet libraries count on this labor as a means of filling in gaps in the staffing pattern.
Managers need to make discussions of career advancement more clear and present. Often, these conversations are met with silence. They are “undiscussable” because managers feel powerless to offer opportunities due to lack of funding or resources. Managers don’t have the time to train nor the budget to have people work outside of their job descriptions. One reason is that employees may not feel comfortable discussing their career goals with their managers or colleagues because they fear that it may be perceived as being too ambitious or that it may jeopardize their current position. Another reason is that some organizations may not have a clear career path or promotion process in place, which can make it difficult for employees to know what steps they need to take to advance their careers.
As a profession, we have to make career tracks and ladders explicit. This allows individuals who want to move ahead in their career a chance to get a raise or expand their responsibilities. Bosses can develop a career development plan so individuals can track their progress and hit milestones. This helps workers picture the roles and responsibilities that they can advance to and where they fit in the overall structure of the organization. Without a career ladder, people don’t get raises and it makes the pay stagnant.
Organizations need to be mindful of non-promotable tasks such as planning birthday parties, taking on work of people on vacation, organizing happy hours, and taking out the trash. These duties aren’t core to a person’s job description, are often done behind the scenes, and rarely use their specialized skills. Non-promotable tasks assist the organization but don’t help advance an individual’s career.
There needs to be consistent professional mentoring and cross training. Managers can identify training needs and set clear goals. Individuals can take on short term projects and gain technical skills. Leaders can evaluate strengths, skills, knowledge, and experience of workers. A mentor can ask what goals individuals want to achieve and where workers see themselves over the next couple of years. Supervisors can encourage job shadowing so individuals can cross train.
I think the problem of dead end jobs is a hopeful situation because when individuals are able to articulate the problem, there is an opportunity to work towards solutions. If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are not going back to the way things were before and it is a time for people to reevaluate their working situations. The solutions that I offered are just starting points. A strong game plan will allow organizations to be successful. Leaders who care and support their workforce improve trust, commitment, accountability, and results. A supportive work environment encourages long term success.
Library workers are part of an interconnected ecosystem. Just like the natural world, if we neglect one area, other areas suffer. There is an urgent need to figure out what organizations and the profession at large can do to make things sustainable. The social, political, technological, and economic impacts have changed our profession and will intensify in the coming decade. Positive changes will allow organizations to attract employees, boost employee engagement, give a sense of purpose, increase diversity, and reduce turnover.