As I’ve had to do so often in my life, I must start by apologizing for the fact that this is so very long.
How hard is it to get into the degree programs?
Not terribly. It mainly depends on which school and what year- it’s easier to get in U of Alabama, for example, than FSU because they have fewer applicants and are less prestigious. Most difficult to enter would probably be U of Illinois (Urbana-C. campus), Columbia or UNC-Chapel Hill as they’re the most prestigious now that Berkeley no longer has a school.) Make sure that the school is ALA accredited as there are a few programs that are not (Valdosta State U. in Georgia, for instance, a bad thing as it’s the only public u. in GA to offer the degree- when it becomes accredited it will be backdated 2 years, but currently its graduates can only find work in Georgia for the most part and the same is true of other new/probationary unaccredited programs.)
How hard is it once you are in?
It depends on your professors, but generally I’d say medium. There’s a LOT of scavenger hunts in reference courses. The reference questions I had in one of my grad courses (a course taught by an eccentric and humorless woman who’s very well known in the scholastic side of the field- lots of publications, some quite good) were far more difficult than any I’ve had as a librarian. (One that comes to mind was whether or not one particularly obscure ritual and prayer that’s only practiced by a small sect of ultra-conservative Jews can be performed over the corpse of a person who died through sexually transmitted AIDS- it took me about two days of searching to find the answer [which is yes, due to a precedent established during the Black Plague- again, this isn’t a question about routine Jewish theology, it’s about a particular sect that has about 5,000 members worldwide- even a particularly erudite rabbi would have been stumped by this= the answer was in a short translated article of a 1986 article in an obscure publication that was subscribed to by about 50 schools, most of them yeshivas, and that I got through Interlibrary Loan- I was the only member of the class to answer it.)
Anyway, I later found out why: this professor actually solicits the “unanswerable” questions from the reference desk downstairs and from those at other universities. “Unanswerable” in this case means not necessarily that it’s impossible to find the answer but, as with the example above, the reference librarian simply did not have the time to devote to finding out. (When your main job is to serve hundreds of students per week and your other duties you have to prioritize and devoting 10 hours to answering one question just can’t feasibly happen.)
What’s the work like?What kind of jobs are you qualified for?
For the first part there are too many variables to really answer. I’ll tell you briefly about a few of the librarian positions filled by people I’ve known:
Children’s Librarian at a large public library: everything from puppet shows and presentations and reading story books to performing general reference work for the general public.
Systems Librarians- seems to require a complete lack of people skills (at least the ones I’ve known). System Librarians, as the name would imply, have more technology skills than the average librarian and work largely with database related issues, web page implementation, work closely with the technology staff of the university or library system, etc., and generally perform little if any reference (see “people skills, lack of”).
General Reference/Instruction Librarian: Academic- this is what I’ve done basically. You answer student questions from (in order from most to least common) the directional (“where are the restrooms”, “what time does the coffee shop close?”) to the general (“where can I find articles on Langston Hughes poems?”) to the very specific (“I need to know how much rain fell in New South Wales from 1890-1900 and how it affected the cattle industry”). Like most jobs this can be enjoyable or highly repetetive. Bibliographic Instruction is teaching students/patrons how to use the resources of the library from the catalog to finding articles to Boolean searching, etc… (This is incidentally the area I personally most enjoy and where I’m most popular as I do it in a highly theatrical and [if I say so myself] funny and informative way- many hate BI sessions and find them boring but I do them to amuse myself and so I love 'em, plus I figured out a long time ago the students are never going to remember what buttons you push so I use it more to propagandize for the library and let them know about things like Interlibrary Loan or what reference librarians are there for [which many do not know, and almost none know what ILL is] and give out “what buttons do I push” handouts for the rest and I’ve literally never gotten less than a rave review from a professor or student- I have in fact been called “The Elvis of Library Instruction”, though I think of myself more as “Librarace”, if only for the chinchilla furs… where was I? Ah yes, standard librarian positions…)
Cataloger- to me it seems boring, some people love it, you’ll have to study it in grad school and you’ll get a feel for how you feel about it, but mainly they’re responsible for cataloging the physical selection. It can be mind numbingly routine (e.g. you just aquired a copy of a John Grisham novel 20,000 other libraries have, all you have to do is go onto a database [OCLC], find out how they cataloged it and do likewise- takes a minute) to very difficult (Old Lady Muffin just donated three books of ship illustrations and poems about dead cows and commentary on chicken diseases written and privately published by her great-great grandfather, a serial killer and dentist and senator from Maine who died in 1820 and there are no other known copies- how do you catalog it? Should the main heading be “chickens” or “senators from Maine” or “serial killers” or “poetry”, etc., and things like this can take months of working off-and-on upon.)
Library Supply Side Reps.- there is BIG money in databases and other library resource suppliers (those who supply books are called “Jobbers” incidentally) and I’ve known a few people with MLS degrees, some with experience and some without, who went to work for these companies in a variety of capacities. (The giant is Lexis-Nexis with Ebscohost, Proquest, Elsevier and several others also big dogs in the field.) They did everything from answering phone questions from libraries about why a database was down or how to access a certain piece of content to digitizing documents to, most lucrative of course, being a sales representative. Considering that some databases can cost as much as $250,000 up-front and then $40,000 per year after that (I’ve personally spent $200,000 on one database as a one-time fee with a commitment of $5000 into perpetuity afterwards) and there are thousands and thousands of libraries out there, this is really big business. The LN sales rep I work with earns way into the six figures and has homes in Atlanta and Orlando, though he travels 300 days per year.
Medical Librarians- I’ve been one and I’ve known several. It helps if you have some medical knowledge or background (though I did not and I got a job as one and a friend who did not is a revered med librarian at a very prestigious medical school; another friend became one after burning out following 20 years as a nurse). Depending on whether it’s at a hospital or a college or a private company your main patrons may be students or surgeons or (in my case) tiny town health clinics.
Archivist- Requires a bit more training than the usual library job, but they tend to work with one-of-a-kind items, not unlike a curator, either cataloging or accessing or answering reference questions for them.
Government Librarian- a coworker of mine went to work for a huge NASA library in Huntsville AL that primarily conducts research into nuclear energy and weapons development. It’s a private library with millions of items that range from postcard sized photos to 40 volume collections of notes from a particular physicist.
Law Librarian- most of the law librarians I’ve known had law degrees (or at very least significant experience in the field as a paralegal or legal secretary or whatever) themselves. Consequently they earn a bit more than other librarians and they are also highly specialized in their knowledge. (As any public or academic librarian can tell you, you’ll get reference questions upon occasion on legal issues and medical issues but the ONLY thing you can do is help the patron to find the information or articles about it- you CANNOT interpret or even paraphrase it for them as this could be construed as practicing law/medicine without a license.)
These are just a few. There are MANY MANY MANY MANY others. The vast majority of librarians, however, are reference librarians at academic and public libraries (two very different fields, incidentally).
How much can you earn?
The 32K figure above seems fair. My first job out of grad school was in 2000 and paid $33K, but I absolutely hated it (that was the medical job and I hated it mainly because of who I worked for) so I voluntarily took a $3K pay cut to go work at an anonyversity in small town Georgia. A friend who graduated at the same time I did wound up working as a children’s librarian in the same small Georgia town and earned $38K per year, $8 k more than I did, because public libraries are funded differently and better than public colleges in Georgia (except, interestingly, in Atlanta, where public librarians make less starting than they do in podunk towns).
Anyway, I’ve had various raises with each subsequent position due to “bigger budget” and more experience, but I’m middle class. Doesn’t sound like much but before my MLS I never made more than $20K in a year, so being able to rent an apartment and make car payments without a roommate was nice.
Obviously the longer you’re in the field the more you make, and as I said above those who work for private companies and those with special training (e.g. law librarians) usually make more- at Univ of AL where I currently work a librarian with a law degree has a starting salary of about $15K more than a librarian with just a MLS and a librarian with one or more additional masters degrees (i.e. in addition to the MLS) earns about $3K more starting than one without and a librarian with a Ph.D. earns about $5-7K more, BUT that’s not true everywhere. At the colleges I worked at in Georgia (neither was a research university) the salary was slightly flexible but not much- a Ph.D. holding applicant would earn perhaps $1K more than one with a BA and a MLS.
Administration of course is where the money is, such as it is, in academic and public libraries. A branch manager at a public library (and you can get a branch manager position right out of library school if they need one badly enough) will usually make around (this is in AL and GA, incidentally- I don’t know about other regions) $45-$55K starting. The director at the very small public college in “You never heard of it ville” Georgia made around $70K and, though she was 60ish, she’d only been in the field about 3 years. At the public liberal arts college I worked at in GA the director made about $100K and at the U. of Alabama, where the library is 10 times the size of the public lb. arts college I mentioned, the director/dean makes around $200K and has two assistant deans.
What are the chances for per diem and telecommute jobs?
I know they do exist. I’ve never had one personally so I don’t feel qualified to speak to the issue. It is also possible to self-employ as a librarian by providing information to a particular community on a per-use or subscription basis: the usual client base is usually medical or drug or legal professionals as they’re the ones with both information needs and money, but again- not having done it personally I can’t speak to it. I also know a librarian who works for her husband who is a private detective.
One odd thing: the size of a place rarely indicates anything about the salary. I am currently leaving the U of Alabama for a teeny-tiny college in Montgomery AL that literally has fewer students than the U of Alabama has library employees (keep in mind that the U of Alabama has about a dozen libraries and millions and millions of books, documents, maps, etc., so they employee several hundred people). It’s not a career-move- I’m moving to Montgomery because my mother lives there and is terminally ill and I needed something close by- but I feared asking the salary of the position of this private for profit tiny place where essentially my title should be “the other librarian” as I’m one of only two, and it pays almost exactly the same as UA. (Actually it pays about $1,000 less but then they pay my professional dues and a couple of other benefits that make the money back up.) Likewise, the medical librarian position I had in Georgia was for a non-profit agency with 6 employees and paid more than most starting academic positions did at the time.
In general big universities tend to pay better and have A LOT more money for travel and professional development (UA flew me to DC four times as well as Albuquerque and other places in the first year I was there and would have done more but I didn’t have time) but not a LOT better. Personally, and this is strictly personal and ymmv, I still prefer the smaller environment (perhaps not as small as where I’m going) because it’s a lot less bureaucratic and you have more creative freedom. OTOH, I will definitely miss the travel money.
In any case good luck, keep us posted, and feel free to drop me an e-mail to the address in my profile if you have any specific questions.