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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F4MS3QNZ

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Career Motivations of the Scientist-Turned-Librarian: A Secondary Analysis of WILIS Data

Shannon Walker
May 2010 MSLS graduate
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Copyright 2011, Shannon Walker. Used with permission.


What might motivate someone with a natural science degree to forgo the lab and pursue a non-traditional career in librarianship? Are there differences between LIS graduates with and without a science degree that might impact recruitment strategies? An analysis of data from a longitudinal career study, "Workforce Issues in Library and Information Science," sought to answer these questions. When compared to their peers with degrees in other fields, science graduates were similar in social motivation, service ethos, desired working conditions, and nearly all other variables. Science graduates were much more likely to cite interest in computers as a motivation to pursue LIS studies. Those with natural science degrees also showed a strong preference for research-oriented settings such as academic and special libraries versus school and public libraries. In addition, science graduates reported greater involvement in professional research and publications than those with degrees in other fields. In multiple ways, science graduates who entered library school expressed a desire to bring their knowledge of science and passion for analytical thinking to a new career.


For many years, finding qualified applicants for science library positions has been a challenge (Waddington 1962; Heim 1988; Pellack 2007). Numerous studies have examined factors motivating people to choose science librarianship (e.g., Eells 2007; Beck and Callison 2007; Hackenberg 2000; Hallmark and Lembo 2003). Although only about 5-6% of librarians hold a degree in the natural sciences, such graduates represent a far larger proportion of sci-tech librarians; biologists and chemists are more often found than physicists and engineers (Hallmark and Lembo 2003; Hooper-Lane 1999; Ortega and Brown 2005; Winston 2000). In Hackenberg's (2000) survey, nearly half of science librarians sought science librarian positions because of their own background in the subject. Similarly, Beck and Callison's (2007) survey revealed 69% of new academic science librarians had considered it important to work in a science-related area.

Natural science graduates, particularly women, might want to pursue a career change to improve salary. In one longitudinal study of the general labor market (i.e., not limited to libraries), Horn and Zahn (2001) found that salaries for both humanities and biology majors were significantly lower than the average bachelor's-level salary five years after earning the degree. Only those working full-time were included, and salaries were given in 1997 dollars. Men who majored in the humanities earned $31,495 and in biology $31,443, as compared with $33,636 for physical science or math degrees and $38,415 for all majors. Females earned significantly less: $26,800 for biology, $28,362 humanities, $28,741 for physical science and math, and $30,596 overall.

Factors other than salary also influence career change for scientists. Grandy (1998) found that those leaving science to pursue graduate studies in other subjects were more engaged in community service and expressed a stronger interest to work with people as compared with those who continued graduate study in the sciences. Those leaving science also valued having a greater variety of tasks more than those who continued technical studies. Farmer and his colleagues (1995) found that those women most committed to career growth were most likely to leave science-related careers for other fields.

Previous studies of scientists-turned-librarians have noted other appealing factors prompting career change. In Fikar and Corral's (2001) study, former health professionals shared that "going into medical librarianship allowed them to stay in the health care field but with better hours, better quality of life, more pleasant environment, less stress, and no patient care responsibility." Hallmark and Lembo (2003) studied scientists who had moved to librarianship and found that only a quarter had left science because they were dissatisfied with their previous career. Most were "pulled" by positive qualities of librarianship such as autonomy, quality of work life, and intellectual challenge. Most cited a love of scientific literature and enjoyment of research itself as motivators.

While most prior research has targeted science librarians who may or may not have science degrees, the author of this paper was drawn to study a somewhat different population, namely those with a science degree who went on to earn an LIS degree. While this population includes many science librarians, it also includes other types of librarians and even some who did not become librarians at all. This target population includes graduates who do not participate in the science librarian mailing lists so often used by previous studies. This analysis aims to complement the results of prior studies rather than to be directly comparable with them. Do science graduates differ from other majors in their reasons to pursue librarianship and the roles and job settings they find appealing?

For instance, are those with a science background relatively lacking in social motivation, or might they form a misunderstood minority within a humanities-dominant culture of librarianship? Storm and Wei (1994) suggest to "enlightened library administrators" that "relevant knowledge about science can be learned. It is much more difficult to teach a new librarian how to work on a team or get along with his or her peers." Unlike studies in history or literature most science is performed by teams. Hallmark and Lembo (2003) found that one in five scientists who had become librarians cited the satisfaction of working on a team with faculty or researchers as a reason to pursue librarianship. In another study, several science librarians lamented the relative lack of desired collaboration with researchers (Hackenberg 2000).

Understanding the values and experiences of scientists who made the change can inform strategies to retain them and to recruit others to take this unconventional path to a rewarding career.


This paper is based on a secondary analysis of an existing data set. Data had been collected as part of the Workforce Issues in Library and Information Science (WILIS) study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Marshall et al. 2009). The study, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) from 2005-2008, surveyed librarians of all undergraduate majors who graduated from five North Carolina LIS master's programs between 1964 and 2007. The study targeted all alumni, including workers from all types of libraries, other information professionals, and those who had left the field altogether. Extensive multiple-choice measures of career satisfaction and motivation were supplemented by free-text items. The survey also included reporting of educational background and selected career history before and after having earned the LIS degree.

In all, 2,653 graduates participated, a 35% response rate. Alumni had received invitations via postal mail and e-mail for the web-based survey. Further methodological details may be found in a toolkit published on the study's web site ({}) and in several articles appearing in a special issue of Library Trends (Marshall et al. 2009). The 98-page survey is also available online ({}).

The author of this supplemental analysis performed additional coding and statistical analyses for the present paper. The entire data set was included; thus, analyses are not limited to science librarians. Based on free-text disclosure of degrees held prior to LIS program entry, the author coded respondents with a binary variable that reflected at least one "pure science" degree. Those who held a degree in physical, life, or earth/ environmental sciences or mathematics were coded as "scientists." Applied sciences such engineering, health science, computer science, or science education were excluded from this definition. Preliminary examination indicates that applied scientists and natural scientists indeed show differences, but these results have been left for future study except for a few questions clearly identified below. Based on prior literature, 5-6% of respondents were expected to be natural science graduates, or approximately 130-150; the actual figure of 133 fell within this expected range.

Most questions consisted of Likert-scale responses; comparisons were performed via Pearson chi-square p values and a p=0.05 criterion to assess statistical significance. This means that statistical testing is used to compare the spectrum of scaled responses (e.g., "not at all important" to "very important") for different groups. Some differences can occur by chance in any study; results with only a 5% probability of happening by chance (p=0.05) are said to be statistically significant in most social sciences. Thus, results with very low p values (e.g. p=0.001) are highly unlikely to occur by chance and almost certain to represent meaningful differences between groups.


Selected variables from the 98-page survey are detailed here. Variables examined but not reported in detail include aspects of the career and working environment prior to LIS entry and after it and the social/family context of the career. For nearly all variables, comparisons between science graduates and others were marked by similarities rather than differences. Many aspects of workplace and career are fairly universal, and improving these areas can help with recruitment and retention of all workers. For instance, there were no statistically significant differences between natural science degree holders and others with respect to:

Respondents show diversity of opinions and experiences, but most of these differences cannot be correlated with disciplinary background. Other largely unknown factors are at play. Because there are so many similarities between groups, those contrasts that do emerge are all the more striking.

Interest in computers, preferred and actual job settings, and performance of research and publication on the job represent key areas where disciplinary background does correlate with differences. Such factors are explored in greater detail in the sections which follow.


One might expect any demographic differences between science graduates and others to be potential confounders for comparisons. If natural science majors and others differed with respect to gender and/or age distribution, then differences in responses between the groups might be due to age or gender rather than our variable of interest, the major. Fortunately, the groups are statistically indistinguishable with respect to age at graduation or gender. While there was a statistically significant difference (p=0.005) in the age at survey completion, this difference is of small magnitude and arguably of minimal practical significance: a mean of 48 for scientists versus 50 for others.

Scientific Discipline

Life scientists are drawn to librarianship more than other scientists. In this study, 61% of scientists had a degree in the life sciences, versus 16% in earth or environmental sciences, 23% in math, and 15% in physical science (largely chemistry).

Career Before LIS and Motivations to Change

One of the more intriguing findings of this study arose from the career history prior to entering the LIS program. Overall, a third of respondents were working in a library immediately before graduate enrollment; science majors and others equally noted this experience. Over half of all LIS graduates, scientists and others alike, cited some work experience in a library that was at least a little important in motivating their career decision.

Based on job titles immediately prior to LIS entry, most science graduates had already left the lab, if in fact they had ever worked in one. Only 26 of 133 (20%) were in traditional science-related roles (e.g., researcher, technician, science teacher) in the job immediately prior to LIS matriculation. Because the study did not ask about all jobs, it is possible that a higher percentage had held a scientific job at some point but moved to a non-traditional role in an allied field or outside of science prior to LIS entry. For at least some, the move to LIS was not seen as "leaving science" but rather applying it. When offered free response for "other factors" motivating LIS studies, 7% of science graduates offered degree-related remarks such as "combining a science background with another discipline" and "ability to put my science background to use and not pigeon-hole myself to specific research interests." As a third respondent put it: "wanted to stay in my field of study, but do something different. Science without the lab work."

In terms of general career opportunity and growth, the grass is not always greener with a technical degree. Science majors were just as likely as others to have experienced careers that included lateral moves and/or demotions. Science majors experienced involuntary unemployment just as often, and both groups cited "job availability" equally frequently as a reason to pursue an LIS career. Over half of scientists and others considered a desire for a higher salary as a motivation to leave the job prior to LIS studies; there was no difference between groups in this concern.

In short, science majors who entered LIS programs usually had exposure to LIS via work experience, they faced career opportunities no more lucrative than their humanities peers, and most had already left traditional science roles some time before beginning LIS studies.

LIS Allure, Identity, and Satisfaction

Most respondents described coming to librarianship as circumstantial rather than the result of a long-term plan. As shown in Figure 1, those who had majored in a science were much less likely (p<0.0001) than those with other majors to cite they had "always wanted to be a librarian." Despite such differences of initial interest, science majors and others remained in an LIS career in equal proportions. As shown in Figure 2, they were also equally likely to say that "if I had it to do all over again, I would choose LIS as a career."

Figure 3 shows the "current" self-described professional identity for respondents. Those who classified themselves as neither librarians nor information professionals may be considered to have left the LIS field. Note that slightly fewer science majors have left the LIS field as compared with those from other majors (10% versus 13%). Most graduates (both science and non-science) identified themselves as librarian or both librarian and information professional. While science majors embraced the label of information professional to a higher degree than those with degrees in other fields, the librarian moniker remains dominant.

Computing Differences

While similarities were more numerous than differences, some contrasts did emerge. Computers have long played important roles in library and information science, as they have in the sciences. These tools have been less relevant to the liberal arts. Science majors were far more likely (p<0.0001) to consider working with computers a motivation to pursue LIS. Among scientists, 43% considered an interest in computers as having "a lot" or "a moderate amount" of impact on their career decision; the corresponding figure for others was 34%. Further, those with background in the more quantitative sciences (math and physical sciences) expressed greater computer motivation (P=0.01) than those from more qualitative sciences (life and earth/environmental sciences). The above observations come with the caveat that some respondents entered library school before computers were in widespread use.

Roles and Responsibilities

Particularly given differences in computer interest, do scientists end up with different responsibilities on the job? Respondents were asked about their roles in five broad areas:

Despite higher interest in computers, scientists were no more likely to hold responsibilities in IT-related areas. None of the areas revealed a statistically significant difference. The only area to near significance was administration, where scientists may have been slightly underrepresented at 30% versus 39% (p=0.06).

Any respondent who claimed responsibility in a broad area was offered the chance to detail involvement in specific tasks, 67 in total across the five areas. Of 67 comparisons, only three were potentially significant. Two were computer-related. Slightly more science graduates (14% versus 8%) claimed responsibility for database development (p=0.03). The "other IT and consulting" category was claimed by 4% of science graduates but only 1% of others (p=0.01). No difference emerged for database administration or data management.

A third comparison showed a higher degree of statistical significance and a clear hypothesis for causation. Science graduates were much more likely (p=0.0003) to be engaged in academic research and publications, perhaps part of the reason that journals such as ISTL can thrive. Fully 23% of science graduates could claim such contributions, compared to only 11% of others. A passion for research and analysis may drive scientists in greater numbers to discover and share knowledge, or maybe they were more likely to end up at tenure track positions where publishing is necessary.

Job Setting

Some job settings might be more conducive to research and publications than others. It is in job setting, initially desired and eventually achieved, where science graduates and others showed the most striking differences. The WILIS study offered well-targeted longitudinal questions to explore this variable.

LIS graduates may choose to work in many types of libraries and information centers, or even other types of workplaces. The focus of the professional role changes with the community served. In some settings, information professionals may be asked not only to find sources but also to conduct analysis and participate as embedded members of research teams. Subject liaisons and librarians in special libraries are called to serve the few well, rather than all equally.

Preferred Setting When Entering the LIS Program

Former scientists and others were quite different (p<0.0001) in the settings they preferred upon entering the LIS program.

Because there were such marked differences in this variable, results were calculated for more specific academic major categories as shown below.

Both natural and applied science graduates were far less interested in working in public libraries versus those with a background in the social sciences or other fields. School libraries were also less attractive to scientists (except, notably, health scientists) despite plentiful jobs. Those with science background seemed particularly driven to special libraries.

This intriguing result reveals a key gap of the study's secondary analysis, a central unasked question. There was no separate category for science libraries, which might have been classified as special, academic, or health science. Job titles also failed to prove useful in identifying sci-tech librarians.

First Job Following LIS Graduation

The realities of the job market tempered some differences in job setting for the groups, but they still remained highly significant (p=0.002). Natural scientists were less likely than others to work in public, law, or "other special" libraries, and more likely to work in health/medical, corporate, and "other" settings. Analysis of trends for applied scientists has been left for future researchers.

Current Job Setting

Over time, natural science graduates are able to find positions more in line with their original goals. Library settings listed for "current job" differed slightly from previous questions, so they cannot always be compared directly. Natural science graduates were less likely to work in a school media center or community college library and more likely to currently work in a special library, except for law libraries.

Limitations and Future Research

As with any research, the findings reported here must be tempered with limitations.

While the sample was fairly large and diverse, since it was drawn from graduates of only North Carolina LIS programs, some geographic bias is present. Career motivations and academic backgrounds of graduates might differ regionally and by LIS program. For instance, while the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill offers a Bioinformatics certificate, Indiana University offers a Chemical Information specialization. Researchers interested in collecting comparable data for other samples might refer to the survey instrument and toolkit published by the WILIS research group.

Because this secondary analysis drew upon a data set designed for a broader purpose, several variables of interest were not included or derivable from the data. "Science librarians" as such could not be identified or analyzed, with the exception of health science librarians. Expressed preferences for certain settings suggest some potentially motivating factors may not have been captured by this survey instrument, such as applying subject-specific knowledge, maintaining relationships with a smaller and more specialized clientele, participating in research, and satisfying a need for intellectual challenge. These factors are more specific than "interesting" work and may be important not only for recruitment, but also for retention.

As with any self-report survey, responses to this study might have been subject to framing effects and social desirability bias. In addition, retrospective surveys are also subject to recollection bias. Employers and peers encourage professionals to be "socialized" into group norms; with time, one's expressed and even internal values do shift to conform (Chapman 2009). For these reasons, it may be useful for future researchers to survey incoming LIS students about their motivations to pursue the career and to compare those responses with the present work.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The LIS profession has gained professionals from the sciences who cite many of the same motivations as their peers who trained in other fields. Those who pursue the degree stay in the field and are highly satisfied. Science graduates are particularly drawn to settings such as academic and special libraries, including science libraries. The reasons for such setting preferences were not generally captured by questions in this survey, although a strong interest in research might be one contributing factor.

Most current librarians became interested in the career at least in part due to experience in a library. Thus, perhaps the most promising recruiting practices might be to target science majors to serve as assistants in academic or special libraries, to develop close collaboration with science faculty or researchers, and to provide library assistants opportunities to do research in collaboration with practicing scientists. Such a strategy may boost recruitment of future professionals while providing enhanced service to patrons.


The WILIS studies have been supported by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The primary research team from the School of Information and Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill and the UNC Institute on Aging consisted of Joanne Gard Marshall, Lead Principal Investigator; Victor W. Marshall, Co-Principal Investigator; Jennifer Craft Morgan, Co-Principal Investigator; Deborah Barreau, Co-Investigator; Barbara Moran, Co-Investigator; Paul Solomon, Co-Investigator; Susan Rathbun-Grubb, Graduate Research Assistant; and Cheryl A. Thompson, Project Manager.

The author is thankful to have had the chance to work with the research team for one year as a Graduate Research Assistant for Dr. Joanne Marshall, who later served as advisor for the research leading to a Master's paper and the present article. While the secondary analysis was performed after leaving this position, insider knowledge of the data set proved invaluable during analysis.


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