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On Liberal Arts, Libraries and Needing to Eat

Manhattan Convergence

Manhattan Convergence by Evan Leeson on Flickr

When I was in college I used to have these occasional moments of academic convergence. What I was reading in my post-colonial literature class was mirrored in the history course I was taking, which somehow managed to overlap with a scholar’s lecture I just attended. It was like a perfect intellectual storm that somehow made me feel oddly comforted. If so many seemingly different disciplines and ideas were connected, then surely there was something worthwhile about these ideas (and the debt I was incurring to learn them).

A Storm Rolls In

This storm of convergence rolled in again recently, rather unexpectedly. Here are the intersecting layers:

Layer 1: I had agreed to speak to a colleague’s Introduction to Archives class about academic librarianship and then join their discussion on what Sarah Kendzior calls the prestige economy, which encompasses the paradoxical pay-to-play world of unpaid internships, exorbitant higher education costs, and the resultant economic immobility of young people.

Layer 2: A good friend of mine is contemplating a career change to librarianship and is having a very difficult time finding a non-professional position in a library despite prestigious undergraduate and graduate degrees and excellent prior employment. This friend has recently started applying (!!) for unpaid volunteer positions in libraries.

Layer 3: Our college is holding on-campus interviews for Dean of Faculty/Provost candidates, one of whom talked at length about the ways in which the liberal arts are important in today’s economy.

Layer 4: Our faculty’s ever-present defensiveness about our liberal arts tradition results in lots of email sharing of education-related articles in the popular press, including this recent Nicholas Kristof op-ed about the liberal arts (which he mistakenly equates with only the humanities)

The result? I’m left with this swirl of connections between libraries, liberal arts education, and the modern (un)employment scene. What better place to work it out than here!

What Employers Say They Want 

Our college’s most compelling Provost candidate made the argument that we (liberal arts college educators) are selling the liberal arts as an experience, which, although valuable, doesn’t speak to a) the parents and/or students paying for that “experience” or b) prospective employers looking for talented employees. Instead, we should be focusing on what employers say they want in the recent college graduates they hire, which, if you’ve read the Project Information Literacy report on recent college grads in the workplace, is individuals with an “openness to learning and natural curiosity.” It’s an answer tailor made to sell the liberal arts, one reiterated by Nicholas Kristof, who, like so many of our faculty, claim that students steeped in the liberal arts tradition are more likely to make the intellectual connections, ethical decisions, and deep thinking valued by employers.

The pitch is this: Employers can teach young people the industry-specific skills and knowledge necessary to understand their specific work environment, but they can’t teach young people how to think. A liberal arts education produces bright, intellectually curious, motivated individuals who make excellent industry employees.

So Where Are These Entry-Level, Learn-on-the-job Jobs?

Based on the PIL report and the way everyone who teaches the liberal arts talks about a liberal arts education, you’d think that our college graduates would be turning down employment offers all day, every day. Part of the problem is that liberal arts educators, and those in higher education in general, don’t like to talk about jobs. Why cheapen the intellectual pursuit of colleges and universities by talking about something as gauche as employment value? We’re here to educate! to broaden horizons! to open minds! to ! It’s an approach that has been losing traction recently as college costs continue to skyrocket, and graduate degrees are portrayed as the new bachelor’s degree.

One of the most vocal critics of the modern employment scene and its relationship to higher education is Sarah Kendzior who frequently writes and speaks about the prestige economy. In a series of blog posts and powerful tweets, she’s called out an economic system that values “skills” over education and has replaced the process of learning “skills” on the job with unpaid internships and other debt-inducing activities. Even Kristof’s defense of the liberal arts mentions the need to pair a liberal education with “technology skills;” although he fails to acknowledge that yesterday’s tech skills are today’s internet memes.

We see evidence of the prestige economy in libraries and archives ALL THE TIME. In fact it is so prevalent that there was even a public shaming blog devoted to unpaid internships or below subsistence level jobs in archives. I remember trying to break into the library/archive world and applying to jobs that paid about as well as an Americorps stipend, minus the student loan forgiveness.

In our most recent librarian job search our library director was adamant about making the position open to entry-level librarians, because, in her words, it’s just not the kind of job posting you see anymore. I was surprised and impressed with the degree of experience many of our entry-level candidates gained from both paid assistantships and unpaid internships, but of course, nothing quite prepares you for what you learn on the job. We need to acknowledge this in libraries and be willing to hire people, FOR MONEY, who demonstrate passion, enthusiasm and a capacity to learn. We can teach you the ins and outs of our library/archive. You can offer the fresh perspective and smarts.

An Apology

Not too long ago I wrote this opinion piece for C&RL News offering advice to library job seekers. My intent was to be helpful and inspiring, but in reading it now I cringe. It was in part a rallying cry against the entitled attitude of “I have a degree; now hire me,” in which I advocated for prospective librarians to demonstrate their passion for the profession. (It’s always been my belief that we should hire for enthusiasm and intelligence, not skills.) Yet I completely neglected to unpack the privilege that comes along with writing that advice from my MacBookPro at my desk in my full-time, tenure-track academic librarian job (with benefits!). I failed to acknowledge that there is often no outlet for that passion because library employers are often reluctant to (or sometimes even downright hostile to the idea of) hiring a library school graduate with no previous professional experience. If I were creating my own library dream team (which I may or may not do in my head from time to time), I would hire the kind of people I wrote about in that piece in a heart beat. I’ve seen first hand how smart, motivated librarians with no previous knowledge in a particular aspect of librarianship can downright OWN IT and be amazing with just a little bit of time to learn on the job.

That’s really all that prospective employees need: the time to learn enough to be amazing and not have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from or how they’re going to pay off the mountain of debt looming over them. Given the exorbitant rise in college tuition and fees, that’s not going to happen while they’re in college. So its up to employers to make sure they aren’t missing out on these intelligent, talented liberal arts grads, archivists, and librarians because they aren’t willing to offer a few months of on-the-job training or mentoring.

How is your library opening itself up to new librarians and archivists? What’s your take on the prestige economy? Do you have an opinion about the place of the liberal arts in the modern economy (of course you do; we all do)?


  1. If I was in charge of higher ed, there would be a whole lot more resources and expertise behind Career Services. I feel that this is the missing piece in higher ed’s value argument – a place on campus where the horizon broadening academics meet employer expectations. So often students don’t know how to communicate their education because they aren’t yet able to reflect on the value. This is where Career Services can help open doors both from student and employer perspectives.

    Some solutions that my library education took to help bolster resumes while not costing money are service learning/problem based learning hybrid projects and required internships. Neither of these is paid, necessarily, but by virtue of being class work means that they aren’t resource drains, either. Both of these strategies can be broadly applied in higher ed.

    In many institutions, I also question the value and importance placed on academic advisers. It is not understood by students, parents, or most institutional administrations that the role of an adviser is to get a student through a degree. On matters of employment, advisers speak largely from personal experience and most advisers are career academics whose frame of reference leans heavily on advanced degrees with little experience in non-academic employment.

    These are huge generalizations, of course, but it’s not hard to see the outcome of insufficient Career Services, biased advising, and blind curriculum development in the employment stats and outlooks for many degrees.

    • I think you bring up a REALLY important point when you question the role and effectiveness of academic advisors. There are some faculty who are simply uncomfortable (at best) or hostile (at worst) about the idea that they should be discussing job preparation and seeking employment with students. They often view that as outside of their scope of coverage, or, as you mention, don’t have the non-academic job experience necessary to understand that world of employment.

      I think it’s irresponsible of academic advisors not to discuss career options with students. If we think about faculty as educating the whole student that means talking to them about how they’re going to support themselves in life.

      • Ack! Chrome told me “advisor” is supposed to be “adviser” and even though I thought it wasn’t right, I was too tired to argue. When did it become more work to argue with autocorrect than to just learn to spell correctly in the first place?

  2. Pingback: This Conversation is Sort of About That, But Also Really Not: ACRL Reflections Part 1 | Veronica Arellano Douglas

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