Columns > Published on November 6th, 2015

11 Reasons You Should Not Get A Degree In Library Science

I should probably start with the giant poop story. Giant poops speak volumes. This could be a very short column that makes one very oversized, brown, awful, compelling point.

Instead, I'll start with this:

I've been a library worker for over 11 years, and a librarian for about 8 of those years. It's my chosen profession, and there are things about it I love.

And I've seen a lot of people come into the field for the wrong reasons. Maybe not the normal wrong reasons like fortune and glory and stockbroker stuff, but because they think the library is something that it's not.

It's about that time of year when students apply for grad school. When GRE's are taken. When professors are bothered with the practice of putting a recommendation letter into a sealed envelope like it's a goddamn game show question.

Before you send in your application, hear my warning.

This is why you don't want to go through with library school.


I KNOW, okay. I know this job doesn't suck the way other jobs suck. I know it's not comparable to the shittiness of working at McDonald's or Wal-Mart, or the low wages of working at Pizza Hut, or the soul-crush of phone centers, or the physicality of mowing lawns or cleaning gutters. I know that because I have worked ALL of those jobs.

I'm not starting a worst job contest here. I'm telling some truths about an advanced degree that prepares you for one job.

It's worked out for me, but I wish I'd known some things before I pursued my degree. I wish that people in my field would have been a little more honest about their chosen profession.

Let's do this.

"You Must Read A Lot At Work"

If you've worked in a library, you've heard this one. Let's squash it right away.

Librarians do not read at work.

McDonald's employees don't eat hamburgers all day.

Wal-Mart employees don't shop all day.

Bankers don't fondle money all day. I think. The McDonald's and Wal-Mart, I know those for sure. The bank one is just a guess. Because the thing is, banks don't need someone to fondle the money. They don't pay someone to do that. And libraries don't need someone to sit around and read all day. That's what the customers do, not the employees.

Don't mistake a librarian job for a job where you get paid to read.

"The Library Must Be A Peaceful Place To Work"

Allow the words exchanged between myself and a patron to fill in this point:

If we were in prison together, I’d be eating your food.

The library used to be a quiet place. I'm told. Now, it's a place with a lot of very nice people, and a place where someone might come in and threaten to take away prison Jell-O you didn't even know you had.

This is not a threat made quietly.

Kiss The Library You Loved Goodbye

Do you enjoy writing at the library? Maybe you like to sit there and read? Maybe it's your escape from the hellish nightmare that is your life, a nightmare for which you hold yourself responsible, yet lament at every available moment?

When you work in the library, you kiss that sanctuary goodbye. 

It's a weird thing about libraries. It's not like when you're a scientist, all the science labs you used to hang out in start to feel like a workplace. Or when you're an insurance salesman, it's not like all the strip mall office hellholes you used to love become strip mall insurance hellholes that make you think only of work.

This is why Pee-Wee had a playhouse that was separate from his...workhouse? Where there were living forklifts and stuff? A poster that tells you how to aid a choking victim and also tells knock-knock jokes?

Take it from someone who wandered the beautiful New York Public Library and thought mostly about the security features and collection management. When something you love goes career, things change.

Financially, This Degree Doesn't Make Sense

Let's look at a job that is famous for having underpaid workers: high school teacher.

Most high school teaching jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and the Occupational Outlook Handbook lists their median pay at $55,050 annually.

Most librarian jobs require a master’s degree, which requires master's degree loans, which are like regular student loans except you feel just a teensy bit worse because you were old enough to have known better.

Librarian median pay clocks in at $55,370. That's an extra $250 a year for whoever's counting. Which is exactly 1/12th of the grad school loans I'll pay this year.

Catch-22: Passion As Compensation

This is the other very teacher-y thing about being a librarian.

Teachers make shit. And part of the problem, there's an endless supply of teachers for whom a portion of their compensation is spiritual. They feel like they're doing a good thing, and that makes up for the lower wages.

People teach out of love.

And people librarian out of love.

This can lead to a really bad situation where, if you speak about wages, you're seen as "not a real librarian."

I had a wage discussion where I was told, "Well, you didn't get into this for the money."

And I didn't. But make no mistake. This is a job. 

I wish the smile of a child knocked 5% off a teacher's car insurance. Or that every time a kid learned fractions, her teacher got an Arby's gift card. Because curly fries make everything better, even being broke. But good vibes don't pay rent.

Librarians Have Infinite Bosses

Here is how you figure out who your bosses are at the library:

First, you've got your above, internal bosses. These are the people we traditionally think of as bosses. 

Then, you've got your other bosses. I've come up with a quick way to determine how many people that is.

How many people are alive and able to come into the building, send you an email, or make a phone call?

'Kay. The people who fall into that very large demographic are your bosses.

And none of these bosses will be shy about telling you what they want. You will hear the phrase, "my tax money" more than you would if you spent your life reviewing presidential debate footage.

And the real problem comes in because your different bosses want very different things.

Boss A: Whatever happened to the library of my youth, where it was quiet and children weren't allowed? The one peaceful place? I pay my taxes.

Boss B: I'm an enthusiastic math tutor who meets with students in the library, and sometimes we get a little loud. But I pay my taxes, and we deserve consideration too.

Boss C: How come you guys don't have more KoRn CD's? I...don't pay my taxes.

Boss D: I DO pay my taxes, and I also would like to inquire about KoRn compact discs, and frankly I'm a little perturbed about the implication that you made up above, that KoRn fans, also known as KoRnhOLes, are fiscally irresponsible.

This is a lot of bosses. Who are not afraid to argue with you about the merits of ...Follow the Leader.

It's A Demographically-Homogenous Field

Let's look at an industry that's notorious for being dominated by white males. Google's tech workers are 83% male. 60% white.

85% of librarians are women. 86% of librarians are white.

In terms of race and gender, librarians are a more homogenous workforce than you find in Silicon Valley. That's kinda nuts. For a public sector work force, it's especially odd.

Now, granted, librarians fall into that category of jobs that women have held for a long time. Librarian was one of the few respectable positions you could hold as a woman in the American workforce from early on. It makes sense that these things take a long time to even out. 

But I don't think I'm saying anything wrong when I say that diversity within a workforce is a desirable, beneficial thing.

I think we like to consider this a very progressive field. But in this aspect, it's just not.

Deep Love For Books Isn't Always A Plus

Walk through your public library. Walk into a section you don't know or care about. Pick your poison. Newspapers? Pattersons? Religious books? Political books? Bill O'Reilly's novel that has some strange ideas of how oral sex works?

Whatever it is you don't care about, walk through there, and think about the fact that you have to manage these sections with as much care and concern as you would a section you love. It's your job to care now. 

Let me just repeat this. It is your job to care about a book where Bill O'Reilly describes the act of licking a woman's entire leg.

Now consider this. The other side of things. Imagine you're holding your favorite book in your hands. And you have to throw it away.

Because you will. You will hold books you love dearly, and in your other hand you'll hold a sheet that tells you NOBODY else loves this book. No one has checked it out in five years. It's been untouched, unloved, for five years. And now it's your job to throw it away. To make room for things people want. 

If you love books, you'll hate parts of this job.

The Library Never Ends

When I shelved books at my library, the bookdrop had a hinged, wooden door. When people slid their books in the drop, they pushed the door open, and then the wooden door closed and clapped against its housing.

I heard that clap all day when I was at work. It meant there was more work to do.

I heard that clap when I went to sleep. When I had work dreams, that was what I dreamed of. That sound. No matter how weird the dream was, if I worked with vampires or I was in my pajama pants at work, that sound was always, always there.

The library is endless. 

It’s A Respectable Position. A Grown-Up Job. Pillar Of The Community.

Okay. Fine. Let me tell you a quick tale. The poop story, as promised at the beginning.

On the day I finished library school, I worked as a substitute librarian. I closed the library that night, and there was an incident in the bathroom. By "incident," I mean the largest, single, unbroken shit I’ve ever encountered. It was astounding. Looking into the toilet bowl was like staring into the cosmos. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a corpse in the parking lot, that the person who delivered this stinkbaby was still upright.

The day I finished library school, I grabbed a coat hanger, and I broke up the largest shit I’ve ever seen and flushed it down.

That was the tip of the poopberg.

I’ve emptied a sink full of vomit.

I’ve squeegeed a floor covered in feces.

Blood is more common than you'd think.

These incidents are not uncommon.

Don't get it twisted. I'm not above breaking up a shit with a coat hanger. I've done it many times. I've even perfected a method on later outings that involves rolling up a paper towel and draping it over the center of a shit log, the flush then pulling on the paper towel hard enough to crack the shit. Someone who is above breaking up fecal matter does not do it often enough to develop a technique.

My master's education. There are times I'd be better off with hazmat training.

There May Be A Time When Librarians Aren't Librarians Anymore

A manager in a nearby library system was showing me their newest facility. They had beautiful equipment, exciting new technology, and nobody to run it.

Here's what this manager told me: "I need engineers. I need programmers. I need people who can learn library skills but come to me with something else. I don't need librarians."

Libraries are changing. And librarians are changing too. More of the education involves digital resources, modern technologies. But there may be a time soon when an IT background is more helpful than a course of study in library science. When a programmer has more use than a cataloger. When a hazmat suit is more appropriate than a cardigan.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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