How Part-Time Employment Negatively Impacts the Library

Part-Time Library Employment and High Turnover

Recently, I’ve noticed some troubling changes in my library.  The employees who have been a steady presence in the community for decades are retiring, and new, younger workers are taking their places.  These younger workers, however, are not staying.  Realizing they are working in an institution where almost everyone is part-time (and full-time positions sometimes disappear when an employee retires), they are using the library as a temporary measure, a fun job to do directly after college because they like reading, or a stepping stone to a higher-paying job in a different library– or sometimes a different field altogether.  My library is experiencing high turnover–a phenomenon that often results in lowered customer service; a lack of expertise on the part of the employees; and, long-term, a financial loss for the institution as they waste time continually interviewing and retraining new hires. Sadly, however, I do not think anyone is concerned.

The changes I have noted in my library may be easy to miss if a person does not spend as much time at the library as I do, or if they do not follow the book market and library trends, as I do.  However, I do happen to know that the children’s department has seen about a third of their staff leave in the past year.  And I happen to know from my conversations that many of the new staff do not follow current library trends and that some of them do not even read children’s books.  Twice, I have heard staff (one was admittedly an intern) judge patrons’ reading choices when they felt the parents were being too restrictive.  All of these interactions are troubling because they indicate a lack of knowledge, expertise, and training on the part of the staff.

Expecting part-time staff to deliver the same level of service as full-time staff is, however, potentially asking for too much.  After all, they have both less time to professionalize and less of a need to professionalize–why keep up with trends, integrate yourself into the community, and familiarize yourself with best practices when you anticipate leaving in two or three years in search of a job where you can have higher pay,  benefits, and at least a chance at advancement?  The library is not giving part-time employees any real incentive to do better, nor presumably any resources to do better.  Instead, they are intentionally using part-timers as a disposable labor force meant to do the same jobs full-time staff once performed–but for a fraction of the cost.

Ironically, however, if an employee does want to perform well to attempt to position themselves for an elusive full-time position down the road, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.  Why give a full-time performance as a part-time employee, if doing so means the library board sees an opportunity to keep an employee doing an amazing job for far less money?  Becoming an indispensable employee may just mean becoming an indispensable part-time employee.  The poor part-timers cannot win; being too good means being stuck.  Inevitably, all the part-timers have to leave, either to pursue something they are more interested in or to accept a position where they actually receive compensation comparable to their work.

A revolving door of employees at the library hurts the community as a whole.  It means staff do not stay long enough to form connections with the community, to get to know patrons and their tastes and needs, to partner with other organizations.  It means staff are no longer informed about library trends and how they might impact their communities.  It means staff are no longer familiar enough with the book market to be able to perform exceptional readers’ advisory.  It means staff are likely to become burnt out as they struggle to perform all the duties that used to be done by people who worked more hours.  And, ultimately, it means policy makers could see the library failing to meet community needs and use that as an excuse to cut library funding, when, in fact, the problem is that the library needs more funding to employ more staff full-time.

I do not see the high turnover rate at my library ending anytime soon.  If anything, I expect it to accelerate as more individuals retire and more recent grads take their places.  The library board undoubtedly sees this development as a positive, because hiring several part-time employees over and over again, is potentially cheaper than hiring a single full-time employee with benefits.  What the library board is missing, however, are the subtle effects of the high turnover rate.  They are saving money in the short term by preventing qualified professionals from staying in their positions long-term. In the end, it is a net loss for the community they are professing to serve.

Does your library have primarily part-time or full-time staff?  Have you noticed high turnover?

37 thoughts on “How Part-Time Employment Negatively Impacts the Library

  1. ashley says:

    The library where I was volunteering before I took some time off because of school has a mix of full and part-time, but the part-time employees have been there for a few years so they know the people and the community. They’re only part-time because the library has different hours. I think the library in my town has a mix of both as well, but those employees know the community.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      My libraries wherever I’ve lived tend to have a mix, as well, but most people are part-time, and most cannot afford to make a career there because of it. Some people DO want part-time hours, for various personal reasons, which is fine, but I think that this limits the field of who can work in libraries and helps keep the field non-diverse. If you’re paying a bunch of people a little over minimum wage to work 19 hours a week for several years before they can even think of making more money, most of them will not be able to afford that unless they have wealthier parents or spouses supporting them, which turns work in a library into a privilege. One guy worked at my previous library for 9 years before getting a full time position after someone else finally retired.

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    • Krysta says:

      Some have masters and some do not, but that isn’t what makes them full of part time. Most are part time because the library board wants to cut costs. So people with masters leave for other libraries. Or people get their Masters and leave for other libraries. The only people staying are being supported by a spouse or their parents. And some have been grandfathered in to a better pay scale, but new employees don’t have that, so they are not staying. A master’s doesn’t even get them a pay increase so there’s no point in staying if you have one. You are better off getting a full time job elsewhere.

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  2. bathandbooks says:

    In my area, as I guess with a lot of library cuts in the UK, we have a lot of volunteer run libraries now. While it’s great that people want to volunteer, this gives an impression that you don’t really need to take it as seriously as a staff led library because why care if the council don’t. I feel really sorry for younger people who want to be librarians or other jobs where there are only part time positions – if you don’t have a partner able and willing to financially support you, unfortunately you are going to have to look for full time work even if that means not following your dream career.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yea h, volunteers can be a problem because then the library board sees they don’t need to pay trained staff to do the same job. Yet another challenge for librarians looking for a job that they can live on!

      Like

  3. Nancy says:

    Preach! I just left a library that I was part-time at (28 hours) and took a full-time job at another library. I had been cramming in a full-time amount of work into fewer hours, and never had a spare minute and would occasionally skip dinner breaks to get it all done. When my job was later listed they decreased the pay and the hours available and haven’t been able to hire anyone yet. So that means the other staff is left trying to get my former duties done in addition to theirs, and there has been a lot of turnover in the last six months (for multiple reasons). Being a librarian is important and needs skilled workers who should be appreciated and compensated accordingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I heard a rumor my library was having some trouble filling a position, too. I think the problem is, the recession is over. There are a lot of jobs out there and a person doesn’t necessarily have to take a job that’s only a few hours a week with low pay. There are only so many people who could do that, anyway–you need to be retired or have someone else supporting you. And you have to be okay with the knowledge that this isn’t some thing you do just to get your foot in the door. That’s it. That’s the job. And there’s really no advancement. Even if you really, really want to work in libraries, you might not take that job because you need to live, right? People will take a job they like less if it pays the bills.

      It’s a shame this is happening and a shame it happened to you. I’m so glad you managed to make the jump to full-time, though!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nancy says:

        I stuck out the part-time hours because it enabled me to have the time to get my master degree in library science, and as a mom of three I didn’t want full time for awhile until they were older. My husband has a good job that let me work part time, but for many others that is not the case.

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  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    I just started my library job in May; I am a reference associate. I am in my mid-30s, have 3 college degrees, and receive health insurance through my husband’s job. Currently, I do not have the mental health capacity to work a full-time job. However, I feel very supported in my part-time position. We had a full-time reference librarian leave to become a public school teacher, and when he left, things were shuffled and we ended up with three reference associates instead of a new librarian. I received a $1.50 increase in pay, and the two other new people started at the same increased rate (totally fine by me, as I am so new). Then, they offered us the opportunity to earn an LC5. For each class we take (three max), we receive $1 per hour raise. So, when all is said and done, as a part-time library employee, I am getting paid very well and feel there is room for development here, especially with LEUs. When I was first hired, LOADS of people quit or had just quit, but the reasons always seem normal: making a career change, retiring, becoming a stay-at-home mom. I never hear about job dissatisfaction, but not you’ve got me wondering, because you’re right: for some folks, the library WAS a stepping stone. To me, it’s important that the library itself have stepping stones, such as the ones I described above for my position. Hmmm….now I’m thinking thoughts.

    On a different but related note, this morning I learned on the news that 43% of Americans with full-time jobs have a “side hustle” to supplement their income. My co-workers and I also have side hustles that make us happy: I do Grab the Lapels like a job, another person teaches college courses online, the third tutors ESL students. On the news, they the study suggested that many people have a side hustle because it’s more of what they enjoy and feel happy doing, whereas their full-time job is the bill-paying, insurance-providing employment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I guess my question would be why did they replace one person with three? Because it’s cheaper that way? My library has, in the past, ended a full-time position when someone retired or left. And they will hire multiple part-timers in various positions instead because it’s cheaper to hire multiple people than to pay benefits for one full-time position. As you note, though, it’s not necessarily bad depending on what a person is looking for. My library has several retired individuals working low-hour jobs and there are some people who prefer not to work full-time because of health reasons.

      Yeah, I can definitely see the side hustle thing! I think plenty of people work a job just to pay the bills. It can be nice to have something you do just for you!

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I’m not totally sure that it’s cheaper to replace one full-time librarian with three part-time reference associates. I think it might actually work better with the schedule? We’re open late on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and having part-time people certainly helps with covering those extra hours.

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        • Krysta says:

          It would depend on the library, how much FT staff get, how many hours the PT people get, etc. It’s not uncommon for a FT staff member to be replaced by two part-timers because they can make half the money of a FT staff member, plus no benefits–so it’s cheaper. But that would be because those two part-timers maybe equal one full-time person’s hours. Some libraries might only give a PT employee 10 hours a week. Or 15 hours a week. Well, you can hire multiple people at 10 hours a week to replace one FT person and it’s a lot cheaper because they’re not getting paid much annually and they’re not getting benefits.

          I’m not saying your library is doing that, since I’m obviously unfamiliar with it and not all libraries are the same. Funding varies pretty wildly from state to state, so some libraries have a mostly full-time staff with plenty of room for advancement and continuing education opportunities! But I have seen libraries cut costs by removing full-time positions and hiring multiple part-timers instead, so I guess I’m a bit wary.

          I think the scheduling thing can be part of it. Which is also potentially an issue. My library won’t let part-timers get anywhere near the cut-off (29 hrs a week) because they want them available to fill in for vacation, sick employees, etc. So they’re stuck working for far less hours than they could be working, just in case their co-worker takes off one day. So a lot of them are working multiple jobs, but that leads to burnout and people quitting to go full-time elsewhere.

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          • Grab the Lapels says:

            I’ve been reading through the databases my library has access to when things are slow, which then led me to compare to my hometown library. I wondered which resources they had. Their website looks like a geocities number, and the databases are almost exclusively what’s free online. It really drew my attention to the way libraries are not equal, and it depends not only on taxes, but how voters being willing to increase taxes as needed.

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  5. danielle says:

    This is very interesting, as I have been looking into possibly going back to school either for my Masters in social work or Library and info science. Since I have a love for writing/books/journalism and have a background as an editing intern for a few publishing companies, I thought (still think) this career change is needed for me. But reading your blog on how much you have to play politics and know the scene in the library industry has been helpful.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      There are full time library positions, but I would keep in mind that they don’t necessarily come with high salaries and they might not be available where you live now. If you can or are willing to move states, you have more options. There are also more options in “less desirable” places to live, such as rural areas. If you have a specific city or geographic area you need or particularly want to live in, it might be worth looking into what your options might be there. Do those libraries have full time positions with decent salaries? If full time people retire, are the positions filled with another full time person or three part time people? Do people spend their careers in that library, or do they move on to get better positions or salaries?

      Like

    • Krysta says:

      I would try to find out if you need a MLIS for the area you live in. Some areas seem a little more lenient with the degree (perhaps because they have fewer applicants?) I’d also check to see if you could start working at a library and if they would then pay for part of your degree. And I’d check to see if the library offers an actual pay raise for having a degree. Some libraries don’t. They just give you more vacation time. So you’d have to figure out if it’s worth taking out loans, possibly, for a job where you wouldn’t get any sort of pay raise in return. But it all varies wildly by geographic area. Some states are more well-funded than others.

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  6. 1221bookworm says:

    Unfortunately, this is such a sad sad state across so many jobs – I work as a secretary and am extremely worried they won’t replace one of the secretaries in the office when she retires in two/three years. Companies think that technology will take the place of all these different positions. And no one wants to cover the costs of health insurance, so they keep everyone at part time while expecting the same amount of work to get done. And then they wonder why people move on.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, it does seem like more and more companies are expecting fewer employees to do the same amount of work! In my experience, that just leads to employee burn-out and sometimes employee error. It’s hard to be 100% correct when you’re stretched out all over the place!

      And, yeah, since the recession is over, jobs are less scarce and there’s less of a need for employees to put up with being treated terribly. I think people are starting to realize they can change jobs, be less stressed, and maybe be paid more at the same time!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    Oooh, this post is so well-timed, because … I just became a part-time library worker! Ta-da! xD

    Now, my library is teensy and highly rural. But it still suffered from a lot of turnover and seasonal workers, where they’re often looking to fill positions. Right now, they seem to have a pretty steady group of part-timers, and some who are wanting to stay on for a chance at a full-time position.

    From my perspective, though, this takes an even more complicated turn. See, in my library, there’s a really steep dichotomy. All the full-time workers are 55+, and all the core team, even if they’re just part-time, span from 55 – 90 (yes, we have a part-timer who is 90 and semi-retired). All the newcomers (the most senior of which has worked there, I think, two years, then one year, then six months) are, like, 21. And then there’s me, who’s a little older. But none of us in the younger generation are qualified for the core jobs, and only maybe one or two of us would have the desire to get the proper training and experience for it. But that’s definitely not going to happen as a part-timer. There’s just too much to do and not enough time in the day.

    So with the push for part-time, it also makes me wonder what the succession plan is going to look like for libraries in the US. It’s not like going to college to become a librarian is really much of a “thing” anymore, and I know a lot of the libraries around here are struggling to get/keep employees. I see this being a problem in the not-too-distant future, personally, so I’m sort of curious how this will end up playing out around the country.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’ve read some articles that in particularly rural areas that cannot attracted educated candidates and that may not have populations with college degrees in general, they are looking to waive the master’s degree requirement to become a full librarian (vs. library worker). Options might be a 2 year or standard 4 year bachelor’s degree, rather than requiring both that and graduate school. To be honest, I think this would be worth looking into in general. Library BA’s are not really a thing in the US, and I think they could be, and that would mean people wouldn’t need to go into debt getting graduate degrees for jobs that often don’t pay well enough to justify the cost of the education you need to get.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        Yeah, I can’t imagine paying for a master’s degree for what you’d make at my local library. xD I know there are several of us willing to go back to school and take the required classes, but it’s just a matter of whether there’ll be a guaranteed job at the end, etc., and if the investment is going to pay off.

        The people working in our local library right now are people who have lived in the area since they were younger adults. It’s not the sort of place that would attract people to come after graduating, unless you started out there, so yeah, it’s a big problem here.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’d also add that I think Krysta’s library has a similar dichotomy, and it’s because a lot of the older employees were hired under different rules–they have a higher pay scale, they have a pension, etc. They’re actually making a living wage. The younger people aren’t offered nearly as much compensation, even if a rare full time position opens up. I wonder if something similar could be happening your system. (And a lot of the new people are fresh college-grad age, as well, since they can still live with their parents and get by on the part-time wage. It’s also easier for younger people who can still be on their parents’ health insurance and don’t necessarily need the benefits that come with a full time job.)

      I can’t really see any answer to turnover besides paying better and offering full time jobs, which is admittedly difficult to do when funding to libraries keeps getting cut, and directors want to make the budget stretch by hiring two part time people instead of one full time one. Maybe we’ll just come to live in a world where libraries have a continuously rotating staff like other low-wage jobs like retail.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        That could also definitely be a thing. I get insurance through my husband’s job, since I’ve been doing freelance work for years as my primary job. I know the young full-timers just got set up with 401(k)s, too (and there’s a mini option for part-timers, I guess, but I’m not sure it’s been fully implemented yet). Here, it pays $1 more per hour than minimum wage, so if it’s an option between minimum wage or that, then yeah, that’s pretty good. But I could never do it as a sole gig. I do it part-time around my primary job, which pays way more.

        I can’t imagine it’d be sustainable to constantly have rotating workers. I mean, maybe front desk folk, okay. But the core staff? It seems like it’d be a nightmare to have them rotating on a regular basis, and it’d be such a shame to lose that sort of community that a library can foster when you see the same people every time you come in and they know you.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Debbie @ Brewing Colour says:

    At my local library they’ve gone all part-time as unfortunately my area doesn’t have the money to have it staffed all the time, so the library staff work during the serviced hours and the rest are self-service. I think it’s such a shame but definitely better than it closing completely like it was very close to doing so a few years ago – especially as it’s a commonly used area by the older members of the community and gets absolutely packed during exam season for when students don’t have a good working area at home.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a shame! I’m glad the library found a way to stay open, but hope they can one day return to being fully staffed! I’ve seen the difference in what a well-staffed library can accomplish and I think it’s well worth the money! (Now to convince the local politicians…)

      Like

  9. Samantha D. says:

    Say it louder for the people in the back!

    I currently work two part time jobs, both in the children’s department of two different public libraries. Since getting my degree, I have noticed a trend in libraries that (as your stated) tend to lean more towards large quantities of part time staff over a few full time positions. The turn over is insane, and often results in crazy talented and passionate new people fresh out of school with ideas and drive, burning out within a year because they are stretched thin between multiple jobs, just to maintain a steady income (all still without benefits). It really isn’t a great incentive for new comers entering the career. I know personally I work 17.5 hrs a week at one job, and 11 hrs at another (not counting rotating weekends) and STRUGGLE to get all my work done in the little time I am there. The worst part about being part time is that 90% of my time “at work” is spent on desk which restricts us further from getting things done because of the constant interruption.

    It is so difficult to get that coveted full time position but often times these part time staff are still expected to perform the same way a full timer would with significantly less time, resources and pay/benefits. It is insane and honestly so so sad.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes! Employee burnout is real! It’s not realistic to expect part-time staff to do full-time work! It just results in exhausted employees who realize they can leave for a less stressful job! Where maybe they get paid more money! And it’s truly a shame because I think most librarians want to make a real difference in their community and help build it up and make their library the best it can be. But, to do they, they need to be supported, not treated as expendable.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Charvi says:

    Hmm, I totally get the point you’re putting across and it’s a wonderful observation. My hometown’s library has full-time employed staff who’ve been there as long as I can remember. Soe of them even recognize me from my childhood library days. But the point is they always know what’s where and give good recommendations despite the fact that I don’t visit very often.

    It’s sad, what’s happening in your town. I hope you find a solution soon!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah. We used to have long-term employees, but they retired and now the new ones aren’t paid enough, so… I think a lot of libraries may be facing this as the older employees retire. I hope my library realizes this is happening and it’s a problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Really well made point! I especially agree with you on how this encourages people to see working in a library as a way to fill in a gap between uni and another job. There’s definitely a sense from some people (probably who are thinking about funding) that there’s no need to fill a role with a skilled worker, full time, because they’re trying to cut costs. But this isn’t good for the library service long-term and it’s not good for patrons.

    Like

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