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How you know there are too many archives students

November 9, 2010

This post branches well off of the one that Maureen just wrote, so you should take a look at that one too.  But while she talked primarily about Ph.D. students, I’m going to talk about master’s students.

Since I’m a recent graduate of UNC, I’m still on all the School of Information and Library Science listservs.  Its registration time there, and so naturally emails have been flying around.  But a series of emails from the SILS office caught my eye.  The SILS office was asking first year students in the archives and records management concentration to consider dropping some of the classes that they were in so that second year students could get into them and saying that the first year students will have a chance to get into these classes next year.  Registration difficulties are nothing new; anyone who has gone to college has experienced them.  But asking people to drop classes is a sign of deeper problems, especially since UNC recently started an Archives and Records Management Concentration.

First of all, this is a problem for a school that lists “small class sizes” as one of the perks of going there; small class sizes are great, but not if it comes at the expense of people actually being able to get into a class.  Its not like SILS is a small program, being “home to 309 master’s degree students, 60 doctoral students, 24 undergraduate majors, and 15 minors.”  Maryland is slightly larger, having 420 master’s students and 20 doctoral students, and they want to grow their Ph.D. program and their Master’s of Information Management Program. Library schools across the board are graduating more and more students every year. In 1999-2000, 4577 student graduated with their MLS; in 2007-2008, that number became 7152.  And that, of course, doesn’t count people who come to this profession with a degree in Information Science (like myself), a degree in history, or people who don’t have a masters degree.

And while the number of students are increasing, it doesn’t seem that the amount of professors is increasing.  About half of my classes at UNC were either taught by an adjunct faculty member or by a Ph.D. student.  Graduate school was the first time that I had ever had a Ph.D. student fully teach a class (although that’s probably saying more about my undergraduate institution than UNC).  But I also realized that the adjunct faculty were doing a better job teaching.  Part of it was probably due that I appreciated their practical knowledge, but part of it might have also been the fact that they got to concentrate on one class per semester, while the full faculty members (there are two of them for archives at UNC), had to deal with the new archives and records management concentration, their Ph.D. students, teaching multiple classes, their research, getting tenure, and all the other things with which a professor must deal.

And then there is the fact that the number of student jobs is going down as well.  I was lucky enough to get a 20 hr/wk job processing and pick up a reference internship over the summer.  But I know that at least two of the student positions that were available in special collections when I started at UNC are no longer there, casualties of the economy.  The tradeoff has been less job opportunities available for students but now there is an official Archives and Records Management concentration that students can have on their resumes.  And this official concentration will lead more people into wanting to do archives, creating more competition for less experience opportunities.

While library schools are graduating more and more students every year, their rhetoric remains them same. Pittsburgh, in their informational PDF, has this gem: “58% of librarians in the United States are projected to reach retirement age between 2005–2019.”  First of all, that is a huge time span.  But also, as everyone who has looked for a job knows, librarians reaching retirement age doesn’t mean that people are actually retiring or that those jobs are still around after the person retires.

The job plight of archivists reminds me of the housing market.  Right now, there are too many houses on the market that haven’t been sold, and yet developers continue to build more and more houses, selling people on the American Dream.  There are a lot of archivists who are unemployed and underemployed right now, and yet library schools keep churning out more, telling them that jobs will be there because all of the old archivists are going to be retiring in the next 15 years.  I’m not saying that library school shouldn’t be selling themselves as being able to get their students jobs.  However, the other side of the story is needed as well, and library schools need to acknowledge its existence.

Disclaimer: I really liked my time at UNC, especially my job and the the other students.  If it seems like I’m picking on them, its because its what I know.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Maureen Callahan permalink*
    November 9, 2010 12:30 pm

    If you ask iSchool administrators about this (and I have), they tend to say something about only being passive tools of the market.

    But here’s the problem. Classic market analysis doesn’t work very well when you have rigid, time-intensive entrance requirements — laborers don’t have enough time to adjust to what the market wants (more archivists! fewer archivists!) when they’re in the middle of program in which they’ve already invested tens of thousands of dollars. And the market isn’t big enough or transparent enough for workers to make savvy decisions about where to put their labor.

    So if library schools have their hands on the spigot of the market, and they’re ALREADY manipulating their own numbers through marketing and entrance requirements, I just don’t buy the argument that they have no role in positively affecting labor market outcomes.

    • Jordon permalink
      November 9, 2010 2:13 pm

      Ben, this is a big problem, and I am glad you raised it.

      One of the possible solutions is to try to get archives students to think more broadly about the kinds of things they’re doing and studying, and get them into allied fields–knowledge management, digital libraries, healthcare informatics, and scholarly communication all immediately come to mind as fields that could use the talents of someone with training in archives. I think archival educators, as well as practitioners in the field who do mentoring and provide internships, can impress upon archives students the market value of their skills. All it takes is one good pitch.

      • November 9, 2010 8:01 pm

        Jordon, in theory this is what ischools are good at. However, when you’ve got a certain student population not willing to consider a “non-traditional” archives job, there’s a problem.

  2. Chris Halonen permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:32 pm

    Most people are adults by the time they do a masters program, which means it’s not unreasonable to expect them to pay attention to what they’re doing and take responsibility for the choices they make. If you go into an ischool or info studies program, one thing you ought to notice is that these programs have been making great efforts over the past decade & more to move away from the older library school pattern of preparing people for a few clearly defined types of jobs in a narrow range of institutions — i.e, a few kinds of librarian working in a few flavours of library.

    It’s easy to scoff, but a 2 yr. ischool masters is still the fastest way for someone with a generic undergraduate degree in the arts or social sciences or whatever to pick up a range of useful skills in such areas as database design, web development, and information management in organizations.

    If you spent your two years just learning about archives and the immortal words of T. R. Schellenberg and Richard Cox, or convinced that someone has promised you a gainful career as a young adults librarian or whatever because that’s what you really really want to do, then you’ve wasted your time and that’s your mistake.

    It’s true that all the ischool programs use their specialties in areas like archives and records management as advertising & selling points to attract students, but if you’re still hanging on to that hype after being in the program for a while then, again, you aren’t paying very close attention to what’s going on around you. You can hold your breath and stamp your li’l feet and insist that you’re in a library school which is training you to be a librarian or an archivist, but I don’t think there are many people teaching in these programs who make such promises any more. And the ones that do are pretty easy to spot as out-of-touch and in need of retirement.

    It’s fine to have interests and a focus in your studies, but you also need to pick up on the need for flexibility and see how the skills you acquire can be used in different fields of employment. Take a look at all the reports that have been coming out over the past few years on the uncertain future of libraries: the findings apply just as well to established archives, but archivists’ professional organizations don’t have the $$ to sponsor such studies.

    “Library schools” aren’t churning out archivists and librarians: they’re churning out graduates who might aspire to be archivists and librarians, but who also have the skills to do other kinds of work in the vast & fuzzy realm of information management.

    • Jordon permalink
      November 9, 2010 3:14 pm

      Chris, I agree with many of your points. We can agree to disagree that library programs (and the field at large) are doing everything they can do to get students to think holistically about the information field and how it relates to the job market. However, that’s neither here nor there–whether or not library students *should* be making these connections, the reality is that many of them are not and that is putting them at a competitive disadvantage coming out of school. So out of professional obligation and pain old empathy (I love the subtitle of this blog: “You were unemployed once too, man.”), we ought to redouble–or in some cases, initiate–efforts to emphasize these connections.

    • Michelle permalink
      November 11, 2010 3:11 pm

      As a recent grad of the Pitt MLIS program, the decision to follow the Archives & Records Management track limited the courses I was able to take – no information retrieval, no database management, no web development, because I was required to take Archival Ethics, Archival Management, Archival Description, Archival Appraisal, etc. in place of those classes. The program is 3 semester long if one goes full time – fall, spring, and summer terms – so if a student decides to change tracks after the first term, it is difficult to meet the program requirement and graduate on time. If it is during the second term that the student has second thoughts about whether the professors who are experts in the field actually have any idea about what one needs to learn to work in the field today, it is too late to switch tracks without additional terms and additional debt. I managed to sneak an extra course during the program (plus two concurrent internships) but my adviser was against it and I had to convince her I could handle the amplified credit hours.

      After a year I was lucky enough to find employment in the field (no benefits of course), but many of my classmates have not. People should take responsibility for their decisions, as you suggest, but archival programs need to do their part to make sure they are providing relevant classes and accurate guidance to aspiring professionals. When anyone in my classes expressed concern about employment or needing more practical experience, we were told “The recession is only temporary, don’t worry” or “Grad school is for theory, not practice; you will get practical experience once you have a job.” Just as students have a responsibility to do research on the job market before signing up for a program (although those of us who enrolled for the 2008-2009 school year didn’t know how badly the economy was about to nosedive), professors and programs have a responsibility to give students honest, up-to-date information about the field they are entering. They are the experts – students should be able to trust them!

  3. Brad H. permalink*
    November 9, 2010 2:36 pm

    GRAAAAGH I hate the “Impending librarian shortage” meme with the fire of a thousand suns. The library schools and the professional organizations have been pushing a version of this particular lie for years, and it continues to fail at recognizing the underlying reality of people staying at a job past retirement age, or positions being eliminated once the incumbent retires, or any number of other factors that dry up this supposed flow of jobs before it even starts. It’s disingenuous at best and outright lying at worst and needs to stop now.

    I think ultimately the trend you describe in this post is the distal cause of all of the bad job postings we see around here, but the more I think about it the more I believe it’s only partially the iSchool administrators’ faults. Particularly in this economic climate university administrators are always looking for ways to cut program funding, and with iSchools being outright eliminated at some universities the deans of the surviving schools have to prove that they are still relevant to the university’s mission. High-quality research is one way of doing this, but the other (and easier) way is to expand the number of students receiving education and/or degrees from your school. That way, you can make the argument that “our school is graduating an increasing percentage of total students at University X”, which makes it harder, though obviously not impossible, to cut funding. It is “publish or perish” writ large– a problem within the general university culture rather than the outright malicious decision of iSchool deans to create a glut of grad students.

    Having said that, the above argument is tantamount to the argument that major corporations trash the environment because they are legally obligated to cut as many corners as they can to maximize profit to their shareholders. iSchools may be obligated to do what they can to remain solvent by continually boosting enrollment, but they (IMO) also have a moral obligation to do whatever it takes to ADEQUATELY prepare their students for the market, and to fully inform prospective librarians just what they can expect at the other end of the library school process. Increasing class sizes, decreasing the quality of education through courses taught by PhD students (I actually like adjunct professors as library school instructors), and selling library students a bag of goods about librarian/archivist shortages is repugnant.

  4. Concerned Archivist permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:42 pm

    I remember my MLIS grad school orientation. I was diligent in applying to grad schools and had all of my applications submitted by Thanksgiving of the previous year. I was accepted at a few schools, chose one, and had the orientation with my future classmates the following August. I was amazed that some of the people sitting there had been accepted who had applied earlier that month to what I thought was supposed to be a prestigious archival program. Maybe archival grad programs should be more selective so we don’t have a glut of students competing for jobs in which professional wages and benefits are few.

    What Ben’s post describes should NEVER happen at the graduate level. The graduate level is to be taken more seriously by professors and office staff so that it avoids the pitfalls of undergraduate education. I think it is irresponsible for library/archives programs to graduate students at record rates during a historically bad economy without being totally open and honest about current job prospects.

    • November 9, 2010 8:05 pm

      I was amazed that some of the people sitting there had been accepted who had applied earlier that month to what I thought was supposed to be a prestigious archival program. Maybe archival grad programs should be more selective so we don’t have a glut of students competing for jobs in which professional wages and benefits are few.

      Yeah, but what does selectivity actually mean? Some archives programs in the UK actually require working in an archives before admission. I certainly had no employment experience in archives when I was admitted to my program.

  5. lindsaylee permalink
    November 10, 2010 2:35 pm

    I think Americans have it way easier than aspiring archivists in the rest of the world. When I was auditioning my school, SLAIS at the Univeristy of British Columbia, I was not only told about the plethora of jobs available for archivists, but was also given the figure of $45,000 as the minimum I should be expected to fetch after graduation. What I realized within about 3 months of my first year is that were we being ill-prepared for the practical aspect of the disciple, which was annoying since the MAS should really be an applied degree, and that the job prospects I was told about were in the US. Now I am on many listservs for archival job postings, but the last time I saw one from Canada was about 5 months ago. We have around 20-25 University archives and few city archives that would pay anything worth while. There are 34 million people in Canada, and yet our 3 major ischools are churning out graduates to the tune of about 150 per year. The chances for us to get work in Canada as archivists is virutally non-existent, and the chances for getting a job internationally are also very slim. What are the chances that a Canadian would get hired at an American repository? You can’t even apply at NARA or the Library of Congress unless you are a US citizen. So consider: although your point is valid, it could be much, much, worse.

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      November 10, 2010 6:45 pm

      Since this is an advocacy blog (as I see it — other justice leaguers may see it differently), I would say that Ben’s point is all the more relevant since this trend sounds like it may be international. Message to new, young archivists — don’t believe the hype. Ask for data. Ask for evidence. Ask whether the school cares about its role in flooding the labor market.

      Message to library school admins — stop being dumbasses and pretending that you have no role in the supply side of the job market. Thank you.

  6. E Keathley permalink
    August 16, 2011 10:39 am

    Great write up of an issue that is overdue for serious discussion in both the archives and library field. Any school still touting the “boomers will retire & leave a hole in the market” needs to do some reconsideration regarding their professional ethics and true concerns for the careers of their students.

  7. Jessica permalink
    September 15, 2011 2:57 pm

    >”And then there is the fact that the number of student jobs is going down as well.”

    I just graduated from another program and found this a huge problem. I lived a ways from school, but despite dozens of applications and a willingness to commute, never succeeded in getting any of the student jobs available that would have given me the professional experiences I so badly needed.

    In some ways, though, I count this as a good thing. Because of my inability to find paid experiences, I was driven to seek a number of volunteer opportunities, internships, and practicums to fill my time and get the experience I needed. As a result, I experienced a far broader range of work environments than I would have. I also got a valuable lesson in the power of professional motivation- I feel I gained quite a bit from the efforts put into creating these opportunities for myself (sometimes from scratch).

    All that said, I’m several months out of school now, still working an internship (though finally a paid one), and hoping that a real life professional position is in my near future.

  8. Tom permalink
    May 20, 2012 3:01 pm

    I think in a field that has a social obligation to represent its service community, and already suffers from a distinct lack of diversity and inclusiveness, to advocate fixing a market inefficiency by becoming more exclusive at the point of entry is majorly problematic. trim the fat at the top, an efficient market wouldn’t have developed senior officials who incrementally restrict the expansion of the capacity of the information management market – which is the trouble we’re running into today.


  1. Imagining a Labor Market in Archives that Works for Everyone « You Ought to be Ashamed

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