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Recruitment and retention in librarianship

By Margaret Adolphus


Librarianship is a people business. Highly skilled and dedicated professionals are required to service information requirements in a world where the right knowledge at the right time is crucial. And being able to attract customers in an environment where they can easily go elsewhere demands excellent customer service and marketing skills.

Librarianship has also seen great changes in the last couple of decades. There have been huge advances in technology, as regards both the solutions used by the customer (the growth of the Internet, for example) and those which librarians make available for their users (for example, the ability to link through directly from catalogue entry to resource).

Education and learning have changed so that libraries are now obliged to provide rooms for group work and skilled instructors who can teach information literacy skills. Lifestyles have become more hectic which, combined with the possibilities of mobile technologies, means that information is consumed on the move.

Knowledge has acquired such a premium in many organizations that business and professional librarians are extending their skills beyond published information and looking at capturing that which exists in the heads of people.

All this makes it very important that people within a library are well managed, and that library managers become aware of human resource issues.

What are the main issues?

Human resource management (HRM) is a huge area, covering such issues as:

  • recruitment
  • retention
  • succession planning
  • diversity
  • legislative compliance
  • training and development
  • compensation packages
  • ways of developing a positive workplace culture.

The UK's organization for academic librarians, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), lists human resources as one of its key topics and provides best practice guidelines (SCONUL, 2005).

The guidelines refer to the British quality standard, Investors in People, which is mainly concerned with people-driven organizational performance. However, it also lists a number of areas "more specific to human resource management, without explicitly linking the overarching business strategies to the human resource management dimension" (SCONUL, 2005).

These are:

  • recruitment
  • benefits and compensation packages
  • performance management
  • conformance with legal obligations
  • positive workplace culture.

Canadian librarian, Connie Chapman considers that a good human resources programme should include recruitment, orientation, socialization and retention (Chapman, 2009: p. 123). Ian Smith, an Australian librarian who has written extensively on HR issues, urges bold management, singling out four areas:

  1. the recruitment and selection of staff
  2. performance
  3. training development and workplace learning
  4. organizational change (Smith, 2008).

This viewpoint explores some of the main human resource issues which library managers need to be aware of. Most of these issues require some specialist human resource expertise. Some libraries (such as the Open University Library in the UK) have their own specialists, but for the most part it will mean consulting a general service department. So, most of the actual work will need to be done by the manager on the ground, who will also have more insight into the specific issues for his or her profession.


Probably the major HR issue for librarians is recruitment. Over many parts of the world the workforce is approaching retirement, and there is a need to ensure there are enough capable people in entry level positions who are also talented enough to assume leadership roles to succeed the current generation of managers.


In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, the fact that so many librarians of the baby boomer generation are coming up for retirement has caused a crisis in recruitment (Woo, 2007). According to one estimate, 45 per cent of the workforce will retire between 2010 and 2020 in the US, while Chapman (2009) quotes surveys that show at least 60 per cent of librarians in North America are over 45.

Recruiters are faced with other difficulties:

  • There are now fewer library schools in the US to provide a conventional point of entry (Stambaugh, 2004).
  • Library salaries are not competitive; other new careers have sprung up to attract highly IT-literate graduates who might have otherwise found scope for their skills in the increasingly technical field of librarianship.
  • In Australia in recent years there has been record unemployment, although the impact the recession has had on this or other markets has not yet permeated the literature.

Marketing the profession

Demographics mean that librarianship must go through a period of active and systematic recruitment. In the US, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) formed a task force in 2002-2003 to develop strategies for recruitment, and provide a number of resources, including a recruitment and retention wiki.

Many librarians are aware both of the value of what they are promoting and the need to make it attractive to a new generation:

" ... positions in academic libraries offer access to cutting edge technology, collegiality, continuous learning, challenges, constant stimulus of academe, the ability to make a difference, and the ability to influence the profession" (Stambaugh, 2004).

There is some synergy between the challenging and rapidly changing profession and the values of the generation being recruited. Whereas previous generations were concerned with job stability (there was little movement out of the profession before 2000), those born after 1980, Generation Y, are looking for challenge and the ability to take their career into their own hands, by finding frequent opportunities for development. Stimulus, flexibility and the opportunity to acquire new skills is as important as a pay cheque. Which is good as the former is likely to prove more promising than the latter.

In the US, the diminishing number of library schools, hence fewer people coming through conventional routes, means new avenues of recruitment. One is to look for new academic librarians from PhD students (Stambaugh, 2004), some arguing that it is more important to have people with the right qualities than the right qualifications such as a master's in librarianship (Woo, 2007).

Another popular method is the residency, or work placements in a library. Woo (2007) cites the Carolina Academic Library Associates (CALA) which is offered jointly by the University Library and the School of Information and Library Science of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (see, and the professional cadetship model at the University of Wollongong in Australia (see

Both these programmes offer financial assistance and experience of working in a library. The first is for those studying librarianship, the second for those in any programme. The value of such programmes is that they both offer ways of offsetting the considerable professional cost of training as a librarian.

Many people become attracted to librarianship through working as volunteers The following quotes are taken from the Emerging Leaders blog:

"I was lucky in that, when I was in college, I was able to work at the library there with a bunch of librarians that really wanted to help me and give me a lot of opportunities. I talked quite a bit with my direct supervisor and the library director about where to go to school, what paths they had taken, etc. Then I looked at the ALA website and found more information and schools, jobs, etc. I also read American Libraries and other publications from the field while I was a paraprofessional. I got my information from many sources" (Herrick, 2007).

"I am a lifelong library user. I love libraries and have used them in every city and town I've lived in. I never thought about being a librarian until I was working in the administration office of the Lexington Public Library and one of the directors told me about a fellowship at University of Kentucky. So I quit and went to school full time and now I work for the Lexington Public Library as a librarian and I love it" (Montaño-Smith, 2007).

Collaboration between libraries and their schools is important not only for placements, but also because the library should influence the curriculum (Woo, 2007). Students from other parts of the educational process should also be wooed: high school students can be offered work experience in libraries, and undergraduates encouraged to take modules in LIS related subjects.

The selection process

The first concern when recruiting is to know what you are looking for. The post advertised needs to be carefully defined in terms of the main duties, accountabilities, activities and skills needed. The main tool for this is the job description.

The post can be advertised in the usual channels (trade press, job websites), but professional networks can also be a good source.

When it comes to the interview, the following points are worth bearing in mind (Smith, 2008; Stambaugh, 2004):

  • Involve peers and if possible clients (users) in the interviewing team.
  • Also bring in someone from HR, with recruitment expertise.
  • Get the candidate to do a presentation.
  • Allow the candidate time to ask questions: interviewing is a two-way process, and the candidate should leave with enough information about the organization to know whether they would want to work there.
  • "Competence-based interviewing", where candidates are asked about their behaviour in past situations, can be used as a good indication of whether or not the person has the skills the organization is seeking. Questions designed to reveal likely skills should be put together ahead of the interview.

The process should be as holistic as possible looking at the candidate's whole potential and not just their particular skills for the post (Stambaugh, 2004). Smith (2008) recommends using multiple perspectives in selection: the written application, the interview, a presentation, reaction (verbal or written) to scenarios, psychological testing, and referees' reports.


It is very important to recruit people from diverse backgrounds in order to provide an intellectually stimulating environment, and ensure fairness and equal opportunity. American research libraries have taken the lead here, and the ARL and ARCL have gone to considerable lengths to promote diversity in recruitment. (See and The ARL has some programmes which help develop leaders from minority librarians.

At an international level, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and OCLC provide early career development opportunities for librarians and information professionals from countries with less developed economies. Beneficiaries spend short periods in the USA and Holland, meeting with practitioners, visiting libraries, and investigating subjects of their choice (see

For example, when the University of Tennessee's School of Information Sciences was awarded a grant to train science librarians, it deliberately targeted students in historically black colleges, for example, in Louisiana (Dewey and Keally, 2008).


Having recruited suitable applicants, the next priority is to hold on to them. Retention is another significant issue for librarianship. Chapman (2009) believes that retention is about integrating the employee into the organization, by means of orientation, socialization, professional development and training.

Orientation can take various forms but the following are recommended (Chapman, 2009; McNeil, 2004):

  • Once the candidate has accepted the offer, he or she is sent general information about the organization and its benefits, as well as an employee handbook.
  • In the first week of joining, the employee receives guidance as to their duties, formal sessions on organizational policy and values, a tour of the office, and introduction to relevant staff members, with one-to-one meetings as necessary. The employee should also have expected norms of behaviour explained to them. A larger library may have its own organization chart, and the employee should have this along with other documents on mission, vision, goals for the current year, service philosophy, etc.
  • The orientation should not end in the first week, but should continue at least for the employee's first year, and should involve setting goals and determining training needs.
  • The employee's supervisor plays a crucial role, indicating useful people and resources and helping the employee to avoid embarrassment.
  • Many organizations have checklists, which should cover the technical aspects of the job, company standards and norms, and social behaviour. However, if the checklist is developed into a proper policy, so much the better.

It should be clear from the above that orientation is not just about learning how to do the job, and what the procedures are for evacuating the building in case of fire. A "successful" employee is one who learns what is expected in terms of social behaviour – in other words, he or she is socialized into the environment.

North Carolina State University Libraries have an orientation programme that stresses socialization. There are sessions on library culture, tours, an onus on the supervisor to welcome employees and cover policies and procedures, and one-to-one meetings with other appropriate staff members. Both librarians and support staff have access to the same programme (Chapman, 2009).

Succession planning

Succession planning is also a major consideration for libraries facing baby boomer retirement, and is about taking a proactive approach instead of waiting for the vacancy to arise. The concern is not merely to maintain the headcount, but to ensure that knowledge and expertise is not lost (Wilder, 2004). Problems may also be caused by periods of absence due to family reasons, such as parental leave, as well as by an employee leaving the library permanently.

Singer et al. (2004) advocate that in order to develop a succession planning strategy, organizations look at the direction they are going, in particular:

  • Determine the organization's strategic direction. Are your core users going to change, and therefore the way you serve them?
  • Identify critical management and technical positions. This means looking at the particular technical and managerial competences which the next generation of managers will need.
  • Project future vacancies. This involves conducting an inventory of your staff, predicting how long they are likely to stay, who might be developed as a future leader, and how.
  • Determine executive descriptors for future leaders. These are descriptions of the competences (customer service, teamwork, etc.) that will support the mission of the organization.
  • Identify holes in staffing. What future leadership vacancies can you not fill from your existing staff, and how will you obtain them?
  • Diagnose developmental needs. How will you close the gap between your staff as they are now and how you want them to be in the future?
  • Create a deliberate development plan for your high potential candidates. Then review progress and provide new assignments. Tell your high potential people that they are being given assignments to develop them, and support them in this process.

Because of the demographic situation, many library managers will be involved in drives to recruit and retain suitable staff. In order to get the best out of them, they will need to manage their performance, and ensure that they are equipped with the necessary skills.


Chapman, C. (2009), "Retention begins before day one: orientation and socialization in libraries", New Library World, Vol. 110 No. 3/4, pp. 122-135.

Dewey, B. and Keally, J. (2008), "Recruiting for diversity: strategies for twenty-first century research librarianship", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 622-629.

Herrick, K. (2007), Post on interest in the library profession, Emerging Leaders blog, available at:… [accessed July 9 2009].

McNeil, B. (2004), "Managing workplace performance and career development" in Simmons-Welburn, J. and McNeil, B. (Eds), Human Resource Management in Today's Academic Library: Meeting Challenges and Creating Opportunities, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.

Montaño-Smith, R. (2007), Post on interest in the library profession, Emerging Leaders blog, available at:… [accessed July 9 2009].

SCONUL (2005), Human Resources Best Practice Guidelines, Society of College, National and University Libraries, London, UK, available at: [accessed July 9 2009].

Singer, P., Goodrich, J. and Goldberg, L. (2004), "Your library's future: when leaders leave, succession planning can smooth the transitions", Library Journal, October 15, available at… [accessed July 9 2009].

Smith, I. (2008), "People management – be bold", Library Management, Vol . 29 No. 1/2, pp. 18-28.

Stambaugh, L. (2004), "Recruitment and selection in academic libraries", in Simmons-Welburn, J. and McNeil, B. (Eds), Human Resource Management in Today's Academic Library: Meeting Challenges and Creating Opportunities, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.

Topper, E.F. (2008), "Succession planning in libraries", New Library World, Vol. 109 No. 9/10, pp. 480-482.

Wilder, S.J. (2004), "New hires in research libraries: demographic trends and hiring priorities", in Simmons-Welburn, J. and McNeil, B. (Eds), Human Resource Management in Today's Academic Library: Meeting Challenges and Creating Opportunities, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.

Woo, M.W.E. (2007), "Brain drain or tap the strengths", Library Management, Vol. 28 No. 8/9, pp. 501-514.