ASSOCIATES (vol. 10, no. 1, July 2003) -

*The Numbers Game: Occupational Statistics and Support Staff*


Douglas Morrison
Reference/Serials Librarian
Ohio State ATI Library
Wooster, Ohio

You might not normally associate the area of statistics with library support staff, but my interest in bringing the two together started with my recent participation in ALA’s Congress on Professional Education: Focus on Support Staff (COPE III). The keynote address was given by Kathleen Weibel from the Chicago Public Library, who is both well known and respected on issues concerning support staff or library skills training. During her speech, "Apples and Oranges: Fruit for Thought," she commented on the history and process of how library support staff have arrived in the situation that we find ourselves in today. What stood out for me was her statement that, "…the term support staff used as a collective noun could be used to describe a group of people that make up 60-80% of the total workforce of libraries today…."

This beginning led me to seek answers to questions that I have seen and heard asked many times through support staff articles, e-mail lists, and during support staff workshops and conferences. Questions such as: How many who work in libraries really are support staff? How do the numbers of support staff stack up against the number of librarians in the profession? Which group of positions are growing faster, support staff or librarians? If support staff do make up the indisputable majority of the profession, there would seem to be a number of inequities related to respect, range of duties, levels of responsibility, pay equity, and other issues that are only now slowly being addressed.

Along with these thoughts it occurred to me that a representative sampling of these numbers might be available from the American Library Association as a statistical breakdown of the organizations’ membership. How many members are defined as support staff? Are there any statistical breakdowns by job title or type of work performed? Do they have the numbers of "professional" members versus "paraprofessional" members? Has this kind of comparison been done by the Association before?

During contact with people at the ALA home office, I spoke with people from customer service, the library department, and public relations. Later I contacted others who were supposed to be able to help you navigate the new ALA. website. None of my contacts and nowhere on the ALA. website did I find the kind of membership statistics that I was seeking. One contact stated that she believed that the American Library Association had not even thought to do that kind of breakdown and analysis of its full membership before. I thought that was an interesting comment in light of the questions I was trying to find data to base some conclusions upon.

Then my director pointed out an article in the Spring 2003 Occupational Outlook Quarterly. Andrew Alpert and Jill Auyer answered a very interesting question in their article "The 1988-2000 Employment Projections: How Accurate Were They?" They summarized how the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes projections for a number of selected occupations and pointed out the two main reasons for errors in the analyzed data. The first error is called an "Industry Assumption Error," and it occurs when factors affecting employment projections for specific industries are under- or overestimated. Such factors include technological change, changes to industry legislation or regulation, or a new sector of an occupation is created but not anticipated in the projection data. (Alpert and Auyer, 2003) The second error is called a "Staffing Pattern Assumption Error." These errors result from incorrect judgments about the total employment level for an industry or some type of confusion regarding the mix of occupations a particular industry might use in the course of its work. (Alpert and Auyer, 2003)

Other useful occupational data were actual and projected changes in 338 different occupations for the years 1988 and 2000 . These included actual and projected figures for 1988 and 2000, a column giving projected and actual percentage changes in the occupations, and the projected and actual growth descriptors for each area of jobs. While reading the table to see what occupations had been analyzed, I came across three areas of data I had been seeking--Library Technicians, Library Assistants and Bookmobile Drivers, and finally, Librarians. Looking at these job categories you find the following details:

Library Technicians:

"Employment in Thousands"
1988 (actual) = 54,000
2000 (projected) = 59,000
2000 (actual) = 76,000

"Percent change, 1988-2000"
Projected change in employment = +9%
Actual change in employment = +40%

"Occupation Growth Descriptor"
Projected growth = Slower
Actual growth = Much Faster

Library Assistants & Bookmobile Drivers:

"Employment in Thousands"
1988 (actual) = 105,000
2000 (projected) = 111,000
2000 (actual) = 133,000

"Percent change, 1988-2000"
Projected change in employment = +6%
Actual change in employment = +27%

"Occupation Growth Descriptor"
Projected growth = Slower
Actual growth = Faster


"Employment in Thousands"
1988 (actual) = 143,000
2000 (projected) = 157,000
2000 (actual) = 160,000

"Percent change, 1988-2000"
Projected change in employment = +10%
Actual change in employment = +12%

"Occupation Growth Descriptor"
Projected growth = Slower
Actual growth = Average

From the comparison data for these three library-related occupational areas, you find that both library support staff positions grew at a rate that is two or three times greater than librarian positions. These numbers help to illustrate how much larger the segment of the library community referred to as "paraprofessionals" or "library support staff" has truly become. Borrowing terminology from the realm of higher education, support staff have become the "new majority" when considering the population of the library and information science culture as a whole. Using the numbers of actual employment in each of the three categories and considering the first two categories to be support staff will give you an interesting base to illustrate one of these points. The numbers show approximately 1.78 support staff positions for each librarian level position. This only reflects growth within the profession, as the trend toward more new non-MLS positions than new MLS positions was already being seen back in 1988. The other data also shows that while library support staff positions grew at a ratio of approximately 4:1, librarian positions only grew at a ratio of about 1:1.

These figures help to further illustrate another point. The profession cannot afford to ignore and dismiss the issues and concerns of this large segment of the library and information science job sector any longer. One last point should be made regarding occupational employment statistics and their use: an occupation’s rate of growth is not necessarily the best indicator of job opportunities that are available. There are always factors that can effectively change the immediate outlook of an occupational sector. As a colleague recently reminded me via email, the current budget constraints and slow economy are causing institutions to re-examine their workforces and available resources. Although you can get a lot of information and draw a wide variety of conclusions from statistics you have to remember that these numbers can be interpreted in different ways. As was illustrated by Benjamin Disraeli, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Andrew Alpert and Auyer, J. (2003). The 1988-2000 employment projections: how accurate were they? Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 47 (1), 2-21.

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