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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2003

[Refereed article]

Leaving Science for LIS: Interviews and a Survey of Librarians with Scientific and Technical Degrees

Julie Hallmark
School of Information
The University of Texas at Austin

Mary Frances Lembo
Hanford Technical Library
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


This research addresses why scientists and engineers choose to become librarians and information scientists and how the library profession can identify and encourage these newcomers. Presented as a panel discussion at the 2001 Annual Conference of the Special Libraries Association, the questions addressed in this research reflect the concerns of LIS professionals as they recruit librarians who have scientific or technical backgrounds. Results from interviews and a survey posted on selected mailing lists reveal details of career shifts from science and engineering to LIS. An influential factor in such moves was personal recruitment by LIS professionals.


At the Special Libraries Association 2001 national conference, a panel discussion on the topic of why scientists leave science and go into library and information science (LIS) was popular and generated a lot of discussion. That this topic continues to be of considerable interest comes as no surprise. For decades the job market has been excellent for qualified librarians who are also versed in one or more of the sciences or in engineering; such candidates are typically scarce and in high demand.

Appropriate qualifications for librarians working in the areas of science and technology (sci-tech) have been discussed by the professional LIS community for years. Reporting on a 1983 survey of academic science librarians, Mount (1985) found that only 32% had degrees in the sciences or engineering, although 51% had taken sci-tech courses in higher education. Almost twenty years later, the numbers have not changed much; in a study of academic science and engineering librarians Winston (2001) noted that 35.5% had degrees in biology, physics, chemistry, or engineering. Dewey's comments (1986) regarding the disparity between advertised openings for LIS-trained scientists and applicants who meet the criteria are still pertinent.

An entire issue of Science and Technology Libraries devoted to the topic of education and training in science and technology librarianship emphasized challenges and emerging trends. (Hallmark and Seidman 1998). A point raised in several articles was the desirability of subject knowledge on the part of science librarians and the shortage of such individuals. Lucker, for example, is "firmly convinced that a strong undergraduate grounding in science and/or engineering would be the best preparation for a position involving reference, collection development, and public services," particularly for research libraries, but recognizes that such an expectation is unrealistic in today's job market (Lucker 1998).

In the author's experience as an academic reference librarian, a background in chemistry was beneficial in focusing and defining the user's information need and, subsequently, in searching large databases such as Chemical Abstracts. Decades later, Wiggins argues that such knowledge is even more critical:

In the light of increased complexity of chemical information searching today, with ever more knowledge of chemistry needed to use the tools effectively, it was felt that the implementation of new interdisciplinary graduate programs in chemistry/library and information science and in chemistry/computer science should be explored at Indiana University (Wiggins 1998).

In recognition of the need for information specialists with scientific knowledge some libraries have instituted successful staff training programs. One such program at San Jose State has been well received by library staff.

Science . . . has a large and incomprehensible vocabulary that becomes a barrier for a non-science librarian who is trying to answer a science question. Because of this barrier, we developed a program to give librarians a fast, but focused view of a particular science field and its organization, tying that to the literature for that field. We wanted to give the non-science librarian enough information to be able to . . . guide the science student to material he or she needed and [know] when to refer a question to a subject specialist (Peterson and Kajiwara 1999).

In an investigation of education for geoscience librarians, similar emphasis was placed on subject knowledge:

Participants in the study agreed that a strong science background for geoscience information specialists was highly desirable, if not essential. Some library managers, in fact, stated that they would prefer to hire a geologist and train that person in library and information science than vice versa (Hallmark 1998).

For an information specialist the advantages of having at least some knowledge of science and/or technology are considerable. Library users more readily accept and acknowledge the librarian/scientist as an equal - someone who understands and appreciates scientific values, vocabulary, and methodology. Knowing something of the scientific discipline gives the information specialist more confidence in asking questions during the reference interview and a greater rapport with clientele. After the information need is clearly defined, the ensuing research in a scientific or technical field by a librarian/scientist is likely to be more effective and efficient. For example, searching such databases as the Derwent World Patent Index, Beilstein, or Chemical Abstracts is enhanced by knowledge of chemistry.

Salaries of science information professionals vary widely, chemistry being one of the more lucrative areas. A survey of chemical information professionals (both with and without the LIS degree) during the 1991-92 academic year included members of the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Information, American Society for Information Science (ASIS), and the Science and Technology section of the Association of College and Research Libraries. The average salary for academic positions was $36,900, for industry $57,000 and for government $54,900 (Silverman 1993). Although ten years old, these data illustrate the salary differentials in the ranks of information professionals, depending on the type of employer. With regard to higher salaries for chemistry librarians, Hooper-Lane (1999) surveyed academic chemistry librarians and found better than average qualifications among them: 86% took college level courses; 64% had a science degree; and 43% had a degree in chemistry.

Many librarians who do not hold a formal degree in the sciences or engineering are highly successful science librarians. One can have an appreciation for the literature and methodology of science and engineering without having taken formal courses. Hackenberg (2000) administered a survey through email discussion groups in the sciences and in eight schools of LIS and found that 46.9% of the respondents had at least a "scientific background," broadly defined. Haselbauer (1984), Storm and Wei (1994), and Frank (1989) make strong arguments for hiring librarians who do not hold a science or engineering degree, pointing out aspects of education and expertise that are crucial in academic science libraries in addition to scientific and technical knowledge. Frank emphasizes effective communication and interpersonal skills as well as experience and training in online searching. Storm and Wei suggest positive steps that the nonscientific librarian can take, for example, reading widely in selected journals such as Scientific American, attending lectures or seminars on scientific topics, and taking courses.

The challenge of producing qualified science librarians can be addressed either by attracting scientists and engineers to schools of LIS or by educating LIS students and graduates in science-technology disciplines. A key ingredient for success is the availability of financial support during graduate school. Recruiting scientists to LIS programs has been successful when federal or university funding was available such as was the case with the HEA Title IIB fellowships. Programs such as Indiana University's Chemical Information Specialization/Master of Library Science continue to offer an appealing model for such training.


The three research questions in this study derive from the continuing concern that our profession does not attract adequate numbers of information professionals with a background in science or technology.

In an effort to uncover the motivations and rationale of this group of scientists-and-engineers-turned-librarians, the researchers chose to use personal interviews and a survey, with counterbalancing strengths and weaknesses. The open-ended interview provides more in-depth detail and the opportunity to explore unanticipated avenues and ideas during the conversation but reaches fewer individuals; the number of participants is limited by time constraints. A survey reaches many more people in relatively less time. It provides a wider big picture, at least of those who choose to respond, with somewhat more structured data. Both the survey and the interview elicited very strong opinions, complete with a great deal of commentary, recommendations, and examples. Participants clearly felt strongly about the topic of our research.

Interviews. Through the library literature, telephone calls to selected LIS faculty in accredited schools, the library literature, and personal knowledge of practitioners' backgrounds, 23 individuals who were candidates for interviews were identified. Two were unable to participate, but the remainder agreed to be interviewed by telephone or, in two cases, in person. Surprising similarities among this group of subjects became apparent in ensuing conversations, indicating that a representative cross-section had been achieved. Interviews ranged from 15 minutes to an hour or so in length, and the subjects were candid, cooperative and, at times, eloquent.

Interview questions were tested in advance on three subjects, resulting in the following set:

Likely to elicit lengthy replies, the first two open-ended questions were more appropriate for interviews than for a survey questionnaire.

Survey. The researchers asked for voluntary participation in the study by distribution of a survey on these science-technology listservs: CHMINF, GEONET, SLA-ENG, SLA-PAM, and ST. A total of 194 individuals responded. To increase the response rate of the survey, reference to their former scientific careers was omitted in order to concentrate on the subjects' subsequent work in LIS. The survey questions covered these areas:

Interviewees as Scientists and Engineers

A variety of degrees were represented: microbiology, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, biology, biochemistry, agriculture, civil engineering, and geology. Subjects were initially attracted to science through a variety of experiences, as illustrated by the following examples:

Many of these individuals had impressive careers, and often their co-workers or supervisors tried to talk them out of leaving science. On the other hand, some colleagues were very encouraging. "Hey, go for it! No more toxic fumes, safety glasses, and benchwork." Following are some revealing remarks from a former engineer and a former scientist:

Completed surveys were received from 194 information specialists who had degrees in science or engineering; the highest degree of 67% of the participants was a BS or BA; 25% held an MS or MA as their highest degree; and 8% the PhD. Table 1 shows the distribution of the subjects by the level of the highest degree received and field of specialization.

Table 1
Subject Specialties and Highest Degree Received of Participants in both the Survey and the Interview
Subject Specialty Bachelor's Master's Doctorate
Geology 28 11 3
Life Sciences 40 12 6
Chemistry 46 17 6
Mathematics 15 3 1
Physics/Astronomy 13 2 1
Engineering 11 4 0

The Switch to Library and Information Science

The rationale for moving from science or engineering to LIS has aspects of both "push" and "pull" motivations. The former encompassed some degree of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with a current career in science stemming from such aspects as:

About 25% of our subjects fell into one of these categories.

The remaining 75% who felt positively drawn to the LIS field had a great deal to say about their career change. Of that group a majority (56%) described their love of the scientific and technical literature as well as the fun and challenge of information research. Especially emphasized were the unceasing variety of their jobs (17%), powerful cutting-edge technology (32%), the fascination of the information explosion (12%), finding the "needle in the haystack" for clients (3%), the power and prestige that arises from contributing to the organization's bottom line (5%), and the satisfying and critical teamwork with faculty and other researchers (18%). These percentages total more than 100%, as some participants mentioned more than one aspect of their work.

Table 2
Type of Environment in Which Participants Were Employed or Hope to be Employed
Academic 79
Corporate 59
Special (other than Corporate) 43
Government 16
Public 3
Uncertain 17

Advice to Scientists Considering a Career in Librarianship

Participants in the study offered many suggestions and a great deal of encouragement to potential information specialists. In this section of the paper are presented their verbatim advice and comments directed to scientists and engineers who may be considering a career change. If these remarks seem overly enthusiastic, even na´ve, the reader should keep in mind that these individuals chose LIS after having had other careers and perhaps tend to proselytize to their former scientific colleagues.

Visit a corporate library or a university science library and talk to the librarian. Investigate the field by taking an elective course in LIS if the opportunity arises, or get a student job in the university science or engineering library. And definitely do obtain the LIS degree; one is at a decided disadvantage working in a library with only the scientific knowledge.

The opportunities in LIS seem boundless [in comparison to my previous career]. For example, one can become proficient in patent searching where you deal with challenging databases in which you develop a real and valuable expertise. The pay level is high and many jobs are available. Or you can go into such areas as competitive intelligence, chemical structure searching, or consulting in scientific information and data management (data modeling, database design and development, content analysis) while using cutting-edge technology.

You'll be working in a profession where you are challenged every day to find information that you never knew you could find. Think of getting paid to go on a treasure hunt or to solve puzzles all day! You will contribute to many people's research and projects and obtain a broader outlook on your company or institution than if you were working in a lab. Ours is a great profession for the eternally curious, because as a science librarian you can never know enough. You will never get bored.

Once you are a librarian/scientist, keep a foot in both camps. Maintain your scientific society memberships and attend their conferences as well as LIS conferences. Keep your scientific knowledge current as well as learning the latest in web design and usability, networks, network security, database searching, new information resources, etc. on the LIS side.

Recruitment to LIS

One participant summed up the recruitment scene: "I am the chair of a search committee right now and the pool of eligible/appropriate candidates is tragic. I really wish there were more of us!" Many of the people contacted during this study lamented the contrast between the excellent job market for librarians with science degrees and the number of qualified applicants. In this section are suggestions for more effective recruitment, illustrated by some real-life scenarios.

Repeatedly, in both conversations and written comments descriptions of the effectiveness of one-on-one recruitment emerged. Whether initiated by a colleague, a counselor during Career Day, a sci-tech librarian who noticed a user especially interested in the information aspects of his research, or a supervisor, individual intervention was very effective. Most librarians have noticed users with a sci-tech background who like to teach or assist others. Such individuals are often good prospects, as a couple of participants illustrated: "Somehow I became the 'research person' for a group of lawyers who needed scientific and technical information." "I always volunteered to go to the library and look up stuff for my team."

Two engaging scenarios further illustrates the effectiveness of one-on-one contact when recruiting:

These findings corroborate views held in the LIS field for years. Stuart and Drake (1992) urged librarians to recruit students currently enrolled in bachelors degree programs in science and engineering. They pointed out that such students were already using the latest technology and that librarians "are in a perfect position to advertise the market for information specialists in the sciences and engineering and to propose that some might consider science and technical information provision as a career."

Some useful "talking points" effective in recruitment emerged in the interviews and survey. A former geologist, now a geology branch librarian, pointed out that the freedom in the academic library world is nice. One can often set one's own agenda to a large extent, do some writing and research and publication. A chemist-turned-librarian made the same point. Several people described their fascination with information technology and that emphasizing the opportunities that technology brings to our field is effective. Talk to juniors in college and recruit them while they are still in college. The lack of an LIS undergraduate degree makes recruiting at that level effective. Along the same line is the need for educating undergraduate advisers and career counselors in colleges of science and engineering to convince them to include LIS as an option for their graduates.

LIS professionals can encourage students in LIS to promote their science strengths in job applications and in interviews. They may not realize the significant advantage they have over their peers. Similarly, academic advisers and career counselors can be on the lookout for such students and encourage them to make the most of their science background.

More scholarships and fellowships for new LIS students with backgrounds in science or technology are significant inducements. When such funds have been available in the past, excellent applicants rapidly appeared. There is no doubt that effective recruitment is greatly enhanced by financial support.


The most compelling, consistent theme running through the comments of the scientists-turned-librarians was that they had no idea that the LIS profession was so interesting, challenging, and enjoyable, nor were they aware of the revolution brought about by information technology. These findings are not new. A large proportion of the general public continues to picture "librarians" as people who collect fines and keep both users and materials orderly. Although some LIS professionals are successful recruiters, for the most part the field as a whole continues to depend too much on accidental discovery to make known its intellectual rewards and challenges.

Given the current national priorities, it is clearly unlikely that significant funding for the education of science-technology information specialists will materialize from federal or state sources. So it seems to be up to individuals in the discipline to locate and recruit likely candidates who can play such a critical role in our field.


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Hackenberg, J. M. 2000. Who chooses sci-tech librarianship? College and Research Libraries 61(5): 441-50.

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Winston, M. D. 2001. Academic science and engineering librarians: a research study of demographics, educational backgrounds, and professional activities. Science and Technology Libraries 19(2):3-24.

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