Have Academic Library Staffing Numbers Really Declined That Much Over the Past Decade? | Inside Higher Ed

The first draft of this blog post was written before I published a post on 1/22 titled How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money? 

That initial post generated some strong reactions on Twitter, both positive and negative – and many emails.

My understanding of the critiques of that original post (critiques that I welcome) were that: A. I did not do enough research to answer the questions I was posing. B. The idea that academic library budgets are fungible shows ignorance of how these budgets work. C. I should have reached out directly to academic librarians to answer the questions posed.

Again, fair criticism. Over the past couple of weeks, I worked with a number of academic librarians and an expert in higher ed finance to create a series of Q&As that explored academic library funding.  These Q&As included:

For the IPEDS data that I’m surfacing below, I would like to extend the same invitation to the academic library community to help make sense of the numbers.

One of the variables in the IPEDS dataset is staff by employment status and occupational category, from which the number of librarians, curators, and archivists can be examined.

The data available spans from 2012 to 2020. Here is what it looks like:


2020        38,510

2019        40,884

2018        41,479

2017        41,490

2016        41,993

2015        42,782

2014        43,610

2013        44,677

2012        67,074

Not sure why there was such a significant drop between 2013 and 2012. Probably some change in how library staff are counted.

Even if we start looking at 2013 compared to 2020, the decline in library staffing appears large.

Have academic libraries lost ~14% of their staff over the past decade?

The total number of people employed at postsecondary institutions only declined by 2.5% between 2013 and 2020, from 3,969,226 to 3,868,066

These data tell me that academic libraries are losing a disproportionate number of staff compared to other parts of the university.

What is going on?

From everything I’ve seen, the demands on academic libraries have only increased over the past decade. Libraries seem to stay open later and are open more often. Students and faculty depend on academic librarians for collaboration in learning and research.

The range of digital, data, scholarly, and learning services that academic libraries offer has increased — while the number of people employed by academic libraries has significantly declined.

So, three questions:

1) Why is academic library headcount dropping?

2) What is the end-point of this trend?

3) How are academic libraries managing with fewer people?

Of course, the big question is, what is the impact on educational and scholarship quality if academic libraries are shrinking?

If you have insight, data, and perspective on these questions – and are willing to do a Q&A – please reach out.

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