Moving Up: Making the Transition Support Staff to a Professional Position During a Budget Crisis

Faced with slow economic recovery and a looming budget deficit, libraries are straining to provide services and purchase materials without having to layoff staff. Layoffs, without a doubt, are hard on the individual as well as the staff as a whole. What is the effect of layoffs on MLS-holding support staff, particularly those who hope to be hired as a professional librarian?

The library job market looks better than it did a few years ago for many libraries, but improvements are slow. ALA’s “Funding News @ your library” website testifies to the occasional budgeting triumph, but most posts describe libraries making tough choices under the strain of budgets crises. There are several mentions of job cuts in these short postings; a typical listing describes how a library’s “yearly budget was cut from almost one million dollars to $450,000 and its staff cut in half.”

What does such news mean to MLS-holding support staff? An increased workload as co-workers are laid off? The proverbial pink slip?

When layoffs are occurring, does an MLS provide any protection?

When libraries must reduce human resource expenses, library administrators usually take two steps: freezing vacant positions, and eliminating support staff (non-MLS) positions. Many libraries will fight to keep every single professional librarian position they can, so in a use-it-or-lose-it situation there is a potential opportunity for a support staff person with an MLS to slide into this position.

This is what happened in my case. I work at an academic library in a public, Midwestern university. When it came time for budget cuts across campus, I was one of the ten people from the library on the dreaded list. I would be out of a job in four months. Knowing the job market for library professionals in my area, I knew that finding another library position in my area was unlikely. I prepared a version of my résumé for secretarial work.

As the weeks passed, I concentrated on finishing up all the lingering projects on my desk so I would not leave them for my co-workers to do. There was nothing I could do about my situation but accept it and move on. My dream of ever getting a professional position at this library was over.

Then one day I was summoned to the administration office. The dean and assistant dean told they were trying to approve funding to hire a cataloging/ reference librarian in the area of special collections, and asked if I would be interested. It would be an internal search, as there was no money for a national search.

Two weeks after a half-day interview and a presentation in front of my coworkers I received an official offer letter. I was the only candidate for the position, since I was the only person with an MLS without professional position. Needless to say, it was a very happy day for me.

Would I have gotten this position if there was a national search? Probably not, as I am not experienced in this particular area of librarianship. Was I grateful? Immensely. The same event –campus wide budget cuts– facilitated the worst and best days of my career.

As of this writing, I was in the second week of my faculty position. My leap from support staff to professional librarian status in three short weeks still amazes me. I know the task before me to learn my position will be great, but I know I am up for the task. Despite of the fact that some of my co-workers will still lose their jobs, I feel I have the support of most of my colleagues.

I know my story may be unusual, but in these days of our current economic crisis, many things concerning the labor force are out of the ordinary. I hope that just maybe, this budget crises can provide opportunities for those like myself who very much want to join the professional librarian ranks but are often out-shined by outside searches. I may not be as qualified as an outside candidate, but believe me: my gratitude at this opportunity has renewed my sense of purpose as I undertake this new position.