or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Librarians in the U.S. from 1880-2009

   June 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

It's not too uncommon for me to receive ideas or suggestions for posts through my contact form. Sometimes they can be pretty sketchy, but this one looks legitimate - and interesting.

Oxford University Press recently release a survey of census data detailing Librarians in the U.S. from 1880-2009. Even if you just skim the graphs, I think you'll be hooked.

While I wouldn't call most of the findings exactly shocking, I was surprised to learn a few things:

  • The number of librarians in 2009 (212,742) is roughly the same as 1974 (the year I was born) - and down almost 100,000 since the peak in 1990
    OUP - Number of librarians
  • My home state of Ohio, which always seems like a hotbed of library activity, isn't one of the states with the most librarians nor the most librarians-per-capita
  • Today, only 17% of librarians are male - by my math, that works out to 36,166 of us. In other words, if we average 6' tall and were laid end to end, we would stretch for about 41 miles

    Librarian Gender
    OUP - Librarians by gender

This part of the conclusion also stood out to me:

[T]he internet seems to be having an effect on the field, as it has faced a significant decline since 1990. That decline seems to have slowed substantially since 2000, as librarians adjust to and find new roles in the internet age and the extensive increase in information that it has brought about.

That's interesting - I had chalked up fewer librarians to wave after wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes. I know people sometimes ask, "we have the internet now, why do we need librarians?" but aside from factual reference questions, my library is still as busy as ever. Our Town Hall has never said, "your stats are down, so you don't need as many employees" - instead, they've said, "every town department is being cut 5%, and probably more next year." Maybe that is why I hadn't drawn a direct correlation between the loss of jobs and the rise of the internet - nor that the decrease in jobs would stabilize once we find our information age niche.

If anything, I could hire more staff specifically to serve as a information technology help desk, to support all our patrons who end up with devices and online services they don't know how to use. Maybe that is the new role we are looking for. Really, I don't think the decline in librarians can be as simple as that, but it is an interesting correlation.

Thanks to OUP for mining and compiling this data - and to Lauren for the heads-up.

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