Predicting the future job market: the librarians

People spend a lot of time worrying that robots and computers are going to wipe out all jobs. My belief is that the job market is a lot more complex and simplistic reasonings (“better robots means fewer jobs”) are likely misleading.

I recently observed that despite the widespread introduction of automatic bank tellers in the 1970s, there are more human bank tellers in the US today than ever before. People argue that it has to do with regulations… but that’s not a valid counterargument: more and more jobs are opened due to regulations. If you have a model of the job market of the future and it ignores government regulations, politics, and demography… then your model is probably leading you astray.

I thought I’d pick another example. Librarians working for public libraries. Back in 1990, if you wanted to know something, you often had to go to a public library and search through the catalogs for a reference book. Librarians would work hard to index each and every book in every library. Even so, looking up information in a library was not easy so librarians were often on call to answer questions.

Large organizations often had librarians. Certainly, all major corporations and large government organizations had librarians. They were highly valued, well-paid workers.

Then something happened. The Internet and the Web became ubiquitous. I don’t know how many people still go to the library to look up information, but I’d guess that the percentage is small. For my own research, I no longer go to a library. I still refer my students to the University library, but I don’t think many of my students ever talk to a librarian.

So how did librarians fare?

In 1990, there were 21,000 accreditated librarians in the US working for public libraries (ALA-MLS) and there were 32,000 in 2011. A 50% increase…

What is the US government predicting for the next ten years?

(…) the increased availability of electronic information is expected to increase the demand for librarians in research and special libraries, where patrons will need help sorting through the large amount of digital information.

So it seems like the Web is not wiping out librarians.

It seems to me that we might still have as many librarians as we do today in 50 years. Why not? When I look at colleges around me, none of them are closing their libraries. I have not heard any plans regarding the closing of libraries. My local town just built a brand new library…

I’d argue that librarians have largely lost the purpose they had in 1990. They are no longer the gatekeepers of scholarly information… but jobs are tricky things. They often exist for a variety of reasons, and the primary stated purpose of a job might not be so essential.

If your model of the future job market cannot account for the increases in the number of librarians and bank tellers… then what is it good for?

Daniel Lemire, "Predicting the future job market: the librarians," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 9, 2017.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “Predicting the future job market: the librarians”

  1. I agree with you, Daniel. Most of the claims like “robots will take all of jobs” are completely overblown.

    Sure, the job market will certainly change. But has it ever stopped changing anyways? Many jobs that were essential back in the day simply aren’t so today. We just need to think about milk and bread delivery; it was hot in the 50s and 60s, but not anymore. Do we really need these anymore?

    Jobs that can be automated will probably disappear. And those that can’t be simply won’t. It will be our responsibility to adapt this changing landscape. And we may have some surprises; jobs that we thought would disappear may not, like librarians.

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