The price of entry

dead leaves in a forest

Last night, LIS student Megan Chorusch decided she’d had enough, and told the library sector something it needed to hear.

I’ll let you read the thread for yourself. I am furious that our sector is putting people in this position. So many prospective library workers are making huge sacrifices in the pursuit of jobs that simply are not there. Megan’s story is heartbreaking—yet all too common.

For many, the prospect of library work is deeply appealing. In theory, library work offers the chance of being able to help people, to connect them with information and knowledge, to not have to sell them stuff, to do something meaningful and honourable with your life. Many see librarianship as more than just a job. This is vocational awe, a cruel deception our industry clings to, painting itself as inherently good and wonderful and therefore beyond reproach. Very quickly this turns into ‘you should do this work because you love it, and not because it pays’. Very quickly the goalposts start shifting, as more and more people seek this kind of work. Entry-level positions suddenly ask for years of experience. Then those positions start paying less. Then they vanish altogether.

What do we tell people who are looking to get into the library industry? We tell them to volunteer. We tell them to work for free. We tell them to try and get casual or part-time employment. We tell them, in short, to devalue and exploit themselves before the sector does it for them. Librarianship, historically a profession deemed suitable for women, has never been a high-paying industry. I don’t know anyone who became a librarian for the money, and I know a lot of librarians.

But what we’re really telling prospective library workers, as I have written before and as plenty have pointed out before me, is that if you can’t afford to volunteer or work casual hours then there is no place for you here. Many LIS students are mature-age, perhaps re-entering the workforce after having children, or perhaps looking for a career change. Many have families, mortgages, caring responsibilities, financial pressures. Many others come from working-class backgrounds, have a disability, are Indigenous, live in regional areas, are marginalised in the job market in so many other ways. They can’t afford to work for free or for so little. And they shouldn’t have to.

This story belongs to so many of us. My twitter feed is full of tales very similar to Megan’s. ‘I’ve recently decided not to go on with my information management studies.’ ‘I am having to go to tafe to do an admin course because I need to work.’ ‘I have three volunteer roles with ALIA, and still no one wants me with no experience.’ Megan’s thread has resonated with many library students and new graduates who don’t see a future for themselves in the industry. And they’re the ones who care enough about libraries to tweet about them! Their despair is palpable. I wish I could do something to help.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a permanent full-time job in a library that many people would give their right arm to work for. I don’t have dependants or a mortgage. I didn’t have to volunteer for organisations that were capable of paying me (and I could make a conscious decision not to do this). All I had to do was blog and tweet and write and present and be on committees and have a ~presence~ and perform huge amounts of hope labour in order to get where I am, never mind where I hope to be. It’s a hell of a lot of work. I love what I do, and I am acutely aware of my good fortune, but the hustle feels never-ending.

And yet, curiously, we’re also told that libraries are facing a skills shortage. Librarianship remains on the short-term skilled occupation list for visa purposes. We heard in 2016 of a critical shortage of health librarians in Australia. I often hear anecdotally of libraries struggling to fill a range of qualified librarian positions.

Something is not right here. On one hand we have new graduates at all levels crying out for any kind of library work, and on the other we have employers claiming the job market isn’t supplying them with what they’re looking for. The Department of Employment’s Job Outlook for librarians is rosy, but the Outlook for library assistants and library technicians is grim. Many degree-qualified librarians instead find themselves in library technician or assistant roles (when they can find work at all), consequently crowding out those with TAFE qualifications. Many areas, particularly major cities, will refuse to consider your application unless and until you have that piece of paper… but then they’ll reject you anyway because you’ll have no experience.

ALIA’s education, skills and employment trend reports have consistently claimed that the wave of retiring baby boomers will create spaces for new librarians. I got my foot in the door at MPOW because of just such a retiring baby boomer, but more often than not retirees take their jobs with them. Natural attrition. Efficiency dividends. Doing more with less. It’s all so familiar.

I don’t know who to believe—the Job Outlook, the professional association, the universities, the TAFE institutions. For a profession so attached to ideals of truth, integrity and knowledge, it sure does feel like someone is lying to us.

Like Megan, I don’t know what I want to achieve with this post. I won’t pretend to have the answers, much as I wish I could help those locked out of library work. I’m not a manager. I can’t hire anybody. Very few of us can make permanent, well-paid, entry-level library jobs appear out of thin air. The industry is plagued with structural issues no one person can possibly address.

Yet we cannot expect people to make these kinds of sacrifices for low-paid, entry-level library work. Free labour should not be the price of entry. That is, assuming we can even find an entryway.

Megan writes in closing: ‘Even if I didn’t think [volunteer work] would better my job prospects, I’d still probably do it because I love it there. But the thought of needing to and recognising that I have to prioritise gaining experience before I even graduate. That’s where my frustration lies.’

I hear you, Megan. And I’m sorry it’s come to this.