Posted by: bluesyemre | April 12, 2022

Why I Left Libraries Allison Jai O’Dell

The author, actually taking a vacation and being silly — things made possible by leaving libraries.

For almost a decade, I worked in special collections — flitting from one library to the next, taking on a series of temporary, grant-funded positions. I moved from DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Miami to Gainesville to Los Angeles in response to job offers. I never once planned a vacation, because, a) I couldn’t afford it, and b) I never knew what airport I was going to need to fly out of in six months.

My salaries ranged from $32,000 annually to $45 hourly (part time, without benefits). I spent most of that money moving to new cities and traveling to yet other cities for professional conferences and workshops. I spent the rest buying suits and bibliophilic society memberships to help me appear more affluent, hoping to be accepted by the antiquarian gentleman’s club.

While I was never able to accumulate wealth, switching jobs every 18 months did help me develop a wide range of skills and perspectives on data management — proficiencies that I would later realize were coveted (read:$$$) outside of the library profession.

In 2016, as I was finally relaxing into a long-sought and, so I thought, well-deserved tenure-track position at the University of Florida, I learned that my department was under threat of imminent re-organization. I was faced, yet again, with the prospect of moving to protect my income.

At this point in my career, I’d invested the following into the goal of working as a rare book librarian:

  • Two master’s degrees (and their respective student loan repayment bills);
  • Three romantic relationships (dead upon relocation);
  • The blood, sweat, and booze involved in producing 12 peer-reviewed articles and 1 single-author monograph;
  • Enough red-eye flights, iPads, and pant-suits to sustain 36 conference presentations, 39 committee appointments, and 1 Software Carpentry side hustle.

I was tired. I was broke. And I was feeling broken.

I could have picked up my cardigans, donned some sensible shoes, and gone back on the academic job market.

Or, I could decide to f*ck it all and earn some real money in the tech sector. I chose the latter.

What My Story Means for Special Collections

At the 2021 RBMS Conference, I co-presented a session on the “impacts” (read: detriments) of the gig economy in special collections with Katharine Chandler, Lori Birrell, Courtney Dean, and Tamar Evangelista-Dougherty. Their insights ranged from the loss of institutional knowledge when temporary staff leave, to the loss of permanent staff energies when re-filling (re-recruiting, re-training) soft-money positions every year.

For my part, I dug into the financial and logistical reasons why someone who had devoted seven years to graduate school and a decade to special collections might want to renounce their reputation as a book historian and develop CRM databases, instead.

Why I Left

My reasons for abandoning an entire career in libraries were two-fold:

  1. The toxic and competitive culture in the academy left me emotionally and physically exhausted — but hey, that’s a topic for another day;
  2. I easy doubled my salary for half the work.

Academic jobs are never 9-to-5. If you aren’t working, then you’re teaching, and if you aren’t teaching, then you’re researching, and if you aren’t researching, then you’re writing, and if you aren’t writing, then you’re networking, and if you aren’t networking, then you’re on a plane going somewhere to network, and then, maybe then, you’ll catch a bit of sleep.

Normal people jobs, it turns out, have start and stop times. Normal people get to do their dishes more than once a quarter. Normal people get to take their family to the beach in July. (Read: normal people get to have families.) Normal people get to buy furniture without immediately wondering how they’ll fit it onto the moving truck.

Do You Want to Leave, Too?

During the “Gig Economy” session, I compared earning potential in academic libraries to earning potential on the whole for various technical services functions. If you’re in a dead-end academic cycle, I hope that these figures inspire you to consider how your portfolio may be applicable outside of special collections.

Below, I’ll recap the figures given in this presentation. I reference average salaries for position titles and keywords in the city of Los Angeles. These data were taken from Glassdoor, current as of June 2021.

As a baseline, the average salary for a Librarian in Los Angeles was $62,120 annually (with a salary range of $42K to $92K).

Data Architecture: I was an active member of the RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee, the ARLIS/NA Artists’ Books Thesaurus project, and an OCLC initiative on Web archiving metadata. I used to contribute to development of international schemas, controlled vocabularies, and content standards for free, as a service activity. Meanwhile, I could have earned $134,677 as a data architect.

Web Development: I developed applications and customized discovery layers to help library patrons find resources. I learned several markup and scripting languages in order to take on this extra work for the library, in the hot-hot pursuit of grant funding to list on my CV. I could have earned $88,285 as a front-end developer (the folks who use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build the parts of a website that you see), or $101,021 as a back-end developer (the folks who work with APIs, and transfer data to/from databases).

Data Engineering: Libraries are constantly integrating data from publishers, digitization projects, legacy catalogs, union catalogs, and more. I became a whizz at data wrangling and transformation. I developed countless data pipelines and ETL processes to combine disparate data streams. I should have been earning $112,935 as a data engineer.

User Experience Research: To inform cataloging guidelines, and to better design catalogs and finding aids to meet user needs, I spent a lot of time in libraries researching information-seeking behaviors. I became intimately familiar with Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. I ran focus groups, conducted usability tests, and led card-sorting exercises in order to gather insights on how to improve our discovery interfaces and their navigation. As a user experience researcher outside of libraries, I could have earned $140,985.

Fundraising: As a special collections professional, I was routinely asked to give tours and host events, with the goal of building relationships with donors. I cultivated skills in storytelling, and learned to quickly craft narratives about my projects’ efficacy and impact. As an academic and a gig worker, I helped develop numerous grant applications, and served as a principal investigator on several large-sum projects. Overall, I honed techniques that are crucial to fundraising and philanthropy. In the nonprofit sector, I could have earned between $98,765 as a development manager and $102,546 as a director of development.

Project Management: In libraries, I never had less than five major projects going at once. I oversaw several large-scale database and website migrations, making sure that each of my team members’ contributions were completed in sequence and on time, while I myself served as a project contributor. In the tech sector, I could have been working as a project manager — someone whose sole job is to hold others accountable to the development timeline — and earned $87,086.

Do You Plan to Comment with Rage Because I’m Scaring Off Your Workforce?

You might be part of the problem. If the grant project padding your CV has generated a term-limited position, you’re not creating opportunity for new professionals, you’re creating instability for the entire workforce. Shuffling from gig to gig, special collections professionals take their talent, institutional knowledge, and anxiety with them on each hop.

The solution lay in your budgets. Work with your own fundraising teams to create permanent positions with competitive salaries. Ensure pay equity and advancement schedules for the staff you already have. Don’t drive your colleagues to quit just so they know where and how they’ll make rent next year.

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