Librarians in the U.S. from 1880-2009


An analysis using 120 years of census data

By Sydney Beveridge, Susan Weber and Andrew A. Beveridge, Social Explorer

The U.S. Census first collected data on librarians in 1880, four years after the founding of the American Library Association.  They only counted 636 librarians nationwide.  Indeed, one respondent reported on his census form that he was the “Librarian of Congress.”  The U.S. Census, which became organized as a permanent Bureau in 1902, can be used to track the growth of the library profession.  The number of librarians grew over the next hundred years, peaking at 307,273 in 1990.  Then, the profession began to shrink, and as of 2009, it had dropped by nearly a third to 212,742.  The data enable us to measure the growth, the gender split in this profession known to be mostly female, and to explore other divides in income and education, as they changed over time.

We examined a number of socioeconomic trends over the duration, and focused in on 1950 the first year that detailed wage data were recorded, 1990 at the peak of the profession and 2009 the most currently available data.1 We looked at data within the profession and made comparisons across the work world.

For the first 110 years of data, the number of librarians increased, especially after World War II.  In 1990, the trend reversed.  Over the past 20 years, the number of librarians has dropped by 31 percent, though the decline has slowed.

Considering the nation today, the states with the largest librarian populations are: Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Texas and California.  Meanwhile, the states with the highest concentrations of librarians (or librarians per capita) are: Vermont, D.C., Rhode Island, Alabama, New Hampshire.  Table 1 in the appendix gives the count and proportion of librarians by state in 2009.

Median Earnings

The Census Bureau has kept records of librarian wages since 1940.  Median2 librarian wages (whether full-time or part-time) increased until 1980, though they were a lower percentage of the median wages of all workers.  Indeed, between 1970 and 1980 librarian wages declined nearly $4,000—more than twice the drop of median wages across all professions.  (This wage drop was in the context of the Oil Embargo in the mid-1970s, and the economic fall-out that that caused.)  In 1990, librarian median wages declined further and were the same as those for all workers, but by 2009 they had gained in relative terms, and reached their peak of $40,000.  (All these figures are adjusted for inflation.)  By 2009 the typical librarian earned over one-third more than a typical US worker.  According to the Census results, librarians have enjoyed consistently high employment rates.  For instance in 2009, the unemployment rate among librarians was just two percent–one-fifth the national rate.

A Feminine Profession

Today, 83 percent of librarians are women, but in the 1880s men had the edge, making up 52 percent of the 636 librarians enumerated.  In 1930, male librarians were truly rare, making up just 8 percent of the librarian population.


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