Reconsidering Salary Comparisons

As librarians, we often tell ourselves that when compared with other professions, our salaries are unseemly low. As others have noted, there are many cultural and historical explanations for this disparity, not the least of which librarianship being an historically female dominated profession. Powerful professional associations also contribute to the economic and political authority well established professions maintain. However, these issues fall outside the scope of this article. I would like to suggest that when taken in the context of the cost of becoming a member of a profession; librarianship offers an attractive and feasible career path.

Many professions which have higher earning potential tend to require far more education and more time out of the work force. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual earnings of librarians in 2002 was $43,090. In the same year, other professions such as practicing law earned a lot more ($90,290). Others still, such as practicing medicine, earned even more (family practice, $150,267). However, a more in depth look shows us that other factors should be given consideration.

To become a physician one must attend undergraduate school for four years, attend four years of graduate medical school, and an additional three to eight years, depending on one’s specialty, of post medical school internships and residencies. Similarly, law school typically takes three years to complete. For many professions, additional education prohibits full time work. This in turn magnifies student loan debt.

When practicing law and medicine one must pay for malpractice insurance which typically costs anywhere from $3,000 to 30,000 and up a year, not to mention paying back the enormous student loan burden. In contrast, my MLS program will cost a relatively paltry $11,000. A lot of people, including myself, manage to work full time and go to library school full time. This would be something that is almost unheard of while going to law or medical school.

Taken in this view, many librarians should be more pleased with the salary range of our profession. Although salaries may be comparatively low, the expense to become a member of the profession follows in kind. Further, librarianship is one of the few professions that one may enter into relatively quickly. It is not unheard of to finish an MLS in a year while going full time. Perhaps most importantly, our quality of life, in terms of hours worked per week and stress, are at levels far below many other professions.

With that said, at the end of the day we do not choose to be librarians because of a cost benefit analysis. Rather, most of us want to be librarians because we believe knowledge should be free and easily accessible. Helping to facilitate the dissemination of information helps us to accept our career path. This is not to say that we should not be earning more. We all know we should. However, when looking toward the future and back on our past, we should remember why we chose librarianship; more often than not, for the books.

Jon Goodell, Office of Research Services, University of Missouri–Kansas City