Can we block the pipeline out?

Some of the best new professionals I meet and teach are leaving academic libraries.

Another scholarly-communication librarian in an academic library got in touch with me online last week about finding a different kind of job. I’m well-used to these messages from scholarly-communication librarians and research-data managers new to the profession; sometimes they’re my former students, sometimes they’re conference acquaintances or folk I converse with online. Like the other pre-departure messages I’ve gotten, this one came from the kind of new professional every academic library claims to need: smart, tech-savvy, creative, passionate, hard-working, up-to-date and consciously committed to staying that way. Like the other pre-departure messages I’ve gotten, this one breathed disillusionment and burnout.

I’m worried.

I’m not as worried about the people who contact me as you might expect. By this time I know a pool of academic-library expatriates that, while not large enough yet to expect statistically-significant results from a research study, is large enough and old enough to generate a sense of outcomes. After the inevitable period of uncertainty and second-guessing themselves, expatriates do just fine: they go to government, or data centers, or publishing, or startups, or research labs, or ed-tech, and they flourish there. As an LIS educator and sometime mentor to new professionals, I wish them well and rejoice in their success and contentment.

I’m worried for academic libraries, especially worried for their expansion into growth and change areas such as library-based publishing and research-data management. I worry for ARL-size libraries most—not least because they are the most prolific producers of the expatriates I know—but I don’t believe that changes in scholarly communication and more stringent expectations of research-data management will pass wholly by libraries at teaching-focused institutions or small liberal-arts colleges, so I worry for them as well. Hardly any of the expatriates I know stay in academic libraries; of those who do, none continue to work in scholarly communication or research-data management. One of them, a memorably brilliant former student of mine, told me outright once, “I still want to do this work, but my library acts like it doesn’t want me to, and other libraries don’t look any different to me.” This librarian now works in a national research-data repository.

As an LIS educator, I’m well-used to blame over library hiring difficulties: whatever the flavor-of-the-day librarian is, it’s always my fault they aren’t showing up in applicant pools. I don’t care to contest that perception just now; I have a different question. What’s the use of me trying to fill the pipeline into academic librarianship with people ready to do these kinds of work if they’ll only spill right out the other side of the pipeline into non-library careers? Or refuse to enter the library-employment pipeline at all, as I am seeing an increasing percentage of my students decide? Can academic libraries do what they need to do without such people?

I have already published at great and painful length about the manifold ways academic libraries set up new projects and their often-new staff to fail, substantially informed by what the expatriates I know have communicated to me about their situations. I must guess from that article’s Twitter virality combined with the lack of substantive comment on it from blogs or other longer-form outlets that no few newer academic librarians find themselves in the same situations that spurred the expatriates I know to leave, but they do not dare discuss it openly, limiting themselves to pointing out writing that strikes a chord with them. I worry that these retweeters will form the next wave of expatriates sending me pre-departure messages.

Can we humanely block the pipeline out of academic librarianship? As I look back at the messages I’ve gotten from expatriates, the dominant theme I see is professional isolation. Their colleagues do not support them and do not make them and their work feel welcome or needed, often expressing open fear or disdain for it. Sometimes these colleagues even consciously hinder their work, actively or passively. The new librarians’ reporting chains do not notice this steady drumbeat of discouragement and alienation and certainly do not intervene in it, adding to the new librarians’ sense that they have been abandoned and the challenges they face are too great for them to tackle alone. For all the worry I keep reading about regarding academic-library infrastructure deficiencies and sustainability challenges, I don’t see these problems fueling the outward pipeline; new librarians are ready and willing to tackle them. It’s the workplace silence around them, the sense that no one wants them there, much less wants them to succeed, that drives them away.

What worries me most, given that silence, is that the expatriates I know may be merely the tip of a huge ugly iceberg, and that no one save me—yet another academic-library expatriate—can talk about it out loud. We won’t solve a problem rooted in silence and alienation by reinforcing the silence! Let me suggest, then, that many of us in academic libraries can make a start toward blocking the outward pipeline in our own workplaces. If there’s someone on staff doing something new all alone, please reach out. Learn what they’re trying to do, and keep an open mind about it. Ask how you can help. Co-strategize about how you and they can together make progress on their goals. If you are able, be a safe person to talk to, someone who won’t gossip or tattle or leap to defensiveness. What you’ll hear will likely be challenging to listen to, but your companionship and acceptance could make the difference between a colleague with sufficient support to cope, and yet another academic-library expatriate.

Academic-library deans, directors, AULs, supervisors: please do not abandon new professionals in change areas to their own devices. From what expatriates tell me, your new professionals need your enthusiastic welcome, your political capital expended on their behalf, your help with planning and strategic direction, and your open workplace-internal support. They need these things all the more when their colleagues are unlikely to provide any of them. If you do not intervene consciously on their behalf, you risk losing them, not just for yourself, but for all of academic librarianship.

I worry constantly about how to approach this conundrum with my students. The immediate spur for this column was a student-initiated discussion in one of my classes around some of the librarians that students work for as paraprofessionals or practicum interns, librarians who sneer disdainfully at or recoil fearfully from the new, digitally-focused skills and tools these students are learning about in library school. I can’t even manage to graduate these people before the existing workforce starts telling them that they and their novel skillsets are not welcome or wanted! Small wonder academic-library applicant pools seem sparse. My students are more than workplace-savvy enough to know when they’re being rebuffed.

Is it fair to my students to continue pointing them toward new areas of academic librarianship where they may be left to scale Sisyphus’s mountain alone, suspecting as I do that their chances of alienation and burnout are high? Should I warn them, knowing that if I do I will scare some away from growth areas in the profession, knowing that if I don’t I will have betrayed them by hiding what I know both first- and secondhand about how academic libraries are liable to treat them? At present, I am erring on the side of openness about my own blemished professional history and offering as many useful suggestions as I can think of for coping with an unwelcoming professional environment. I wish I could feel certain that is the most useful and ethical approach. I do feel it incumbent upon me, no matter what, to put my students’ ultimate on-the-job welfare ahead of academic libraries’ cries for new kinds of professionals.

I want my students to do better than I did in the newer professional niches I tried and failed to inhabit worthily, and now teach with all the fervor I have in me. Academic libraries need my students to do better than I did, for that matter! But I need academic libraries to help me out with this by making a concerted effort to welcome and retain the graduates I send them and the other new professionals I mentor. If I’m to go on working toward a better pipeline into academic libraries, I need to be confident that I’m not just dumping my best graduates into a disillusion-stained pipeline out the other side.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”