Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement

While one cannot make the case for librarians to retire simply because they have reached the age of retirement (as would almost be implied solution in various previous positions towards the libraryland unemployment problem), I think there is a better argument for the retirement of older librarians.

The basis? Negligence.

My reasoning is as follows: the librarians who have reached the age of retirement (for the purposes of this argument I will say that this age is 65) are well established in the field. They have accumulated institutional knowledge, the benefit of experience, and a vision that only comes to those who have stayed with a profession for a long period of time. And yet, they have not positioned the profession or the institution to handle the societal, technological, or community trends and changes that currently face libraries. In other cases, they have not built the necessary relationships with those who support the library whether it is the taxpayer or town council. But here we are, deep into a rapidly changing communication and computer age that has revolutionized information sharing around the globe, and rather than be positioned to capitalize on it, libraries around the country are simply fighting to retain funding or even stay open. It represents a failure to lead, a failure to recognize emerging trends, and a failure to act accordingly. That is negligence.

And for those who may balk at this argument, why? Corporations change their executive staff when those people fail to respond to the challenges and problems of the company. Governments changes administrative staff either through elections or appointments. When the senior staff fails, should they not be held accountable for their actions (or in this case, inaction)? This might not be the golden parachute of the former or the nature of politics of the latter, but retirement is certainly not the worst option in the world.

Shouldn’t there be some accountability from library leadership in general on this neglect? Why would the profession continue under people who have failed in such a spectacular manner? During an era of the largest information paradigm shift in the recorded history of mankind, libraries are not at the forefront of these issues. It’s a shame, really.

Before anyone sharpens their pitchfork or wraps another kerosene soaked rag around their torch (for me or the premise of this post), I am just putting forth an argument for the sake of a lively discussion and not suggesting a course of action. It is not meant as a litmus test for anyone to retire. This is also not meant as a blanket indictment of older librarians despite its tone. I just thought it was a better argument for librarians to retire than making it age based. I’m curious for people’s reactions, especially any counterarguments.

So, do you think there is negligence? Why or why not?

Update: Before you hit the reply button, please re-read that last full paragraph. I’d also like to highlight part of my reply to Stephen Abram:

The purpose of the Sunday Speculation posts are to throw out topics for people to toss around and debate. Perhaps it is a vestige of my brief time at law school, but I enjoy the arguments. I’ll argue a counter or unpopular viewpoint for the sake of furthering a conversation (as I am doing in this case). It’s a lab, an experiment, something to ruminate over, and tickle the mind. Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Is this my best piece of work? Certainly not. Do I believe in the point of view I’m touting in the post? No. But I do believe that the argument expressed was compelling enough to share and if I’m going to suggest it, I’m not going to toss it casually out there. I might as well make it a good show. This is not disingenuous, this is good debate. Perhaps it is not the best phrasing, but I think I would have gotten hit with ageism no matter how I framed it since I was asking about library leadership from pre-internet days to now.

I don’t have a problem admitting that it is a clumsy, ham-fisted premise that I have put forth. Is it ageism? Sure. Is it illegal? Yes, both here and in Canada. Does it still happen despite being illegal? Yes. Should those people be prosecuted and/or sued? Yes.

Would it have been better to ask, “Should librarians who have held leadership or administrative decisions since pre-internet days be asked to leave the profession?” Or “Was the action or inaction of library leadership of the last twenty years negligent?” Or even “Are the lack of community and political relationships the result of negligent action by library leadership?”

If you want to judge me for making a hypothetical argument even with the caveats I have attached in the post and afterwards, then I find that a bit unsettling. I find that to be a chilling effect on someone posing a question, albeit a distasteful one, and something that is at odds with the principles of intellectual freedom that are so highly regarded within the profession.

Update 2: Mea Culpa. But I will still continue the discussion below. I’m just opening up a new one from the replies that I have received.

67 thoughts on “Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement

  1. Good timing on the post. I will try to revive this on Monday morning if I remember… I agree that we need to have some changes made to the profession, but I don’t know if we can blame the people reaching retirement age for the problems. These problems might have occurred regardless. But, we do need more people who do innovative and creative work in the profession and with the technology that we use. The problem is that the field often attracts people who are detail and task oriented — not exactly artsy fartsy creative types. How does the field of librarianship attract more innovative and creative people? More money? Not sure what the answer is.

    • An interesting side note in terms of recruitment. Do you believe that librarianship recruitment is essentially homogeneous? I believe we get creative types all the time, they just aren’t recognized and utilized to their full potential.

    • As a recent MLS graduate, I see a lot of innovative, creative people in the field (students, recent graduates, and some more established people). Of course temperamentally I gravitate toward that sort, so they may not be broadly representative of the field, but I’m not convinced that attracting such people is a problem.

      I am worried about retention. Partly it’s just the terrible economy, of course, meaning that none of us innovative recent graduates are getting paid. Partly it’s the attitudes toward hiring, though; the field is very credentials-oriented and people seem more comfortable hiring someone with a familiar set of credentials than talented people with more out-of-the-box resumes.

      And the kicker there, of course, is that it’s the creative, innovative people who are most likely to leave under those circumstances — not just because they are, temperamentally, less likely to be in the same career their whole lives — but also because they’re most likely to see how their librarian skills apply in other fields. The plodders will think “I have an MLS, so what I am able to do is work in libraries”, and stay.

      I do think there are a lot of good reasons for creative people to stay in libraries right now, chiefly related to the idea of “crisis = opportunity”. But I can’t stay indefinitely just to have fun with that; eventually someone is going to have to pay me a living wage.

      • I agree that I don’t think there is any difficulty in attracting the creative, innovative people to the library field. The trouble that I’ve seen is retaining them when there is an institutional culture that is so strict that any creativity is discouraged. All ideas must be vetted before many committees, which takes months and years, and by then, there is nothing new or exciting about the idea. And of course, that then becomes the argument against using the new ideas. My viewpoint is skewed more toward academic libs, however.

  2. Andy:

    1. The research in Canada shows an average age of retirement of 62 fr librarians. I seem to recall the US is pretty similar in the IMLS studies.

    2. I suspect you’ll get a lot of comments that aren’t about your tone but the shear bigoted and prejudiced foundation for the topic. In my country basing arguments and criticisms against a class of people (on race, language, age, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc.) is illegal as hate speech and protected under our constitution so people can be charged and fined or jailed for promoting hate. At this point this is the only limit on our right to freedom of expression. Replace the age related stuff in your post with any other criteria, say race, and read it again. Since you’re in the US you don’t have that limitation and can lawfully blame an entire class of people for a problem in society. I always get uncomfortable when people suggest that an entire cohort of people are evenly to blame for something an saying it’s just for the sake of argument is specious.

    3. On the actual question in the post, I doubt retirement will make an difference since there isn’t an even power structure based on age in libraries. I suppose some people believe that is true since it is an easy excuse to and to blame others for personal failures. If all if the non-retired younger folks haven’t learned the skills by now and tried to change things already why would they suddenly become faultlessly talented when the older cohort retires? The logic is laughable. In the private sector we let people go for reasons of incompetence or fiscal need. While retirement plays into this situation, it isn’t a long term strategy to lose talent or renew. You might be better of asking why people of any age who are incompetent remain in their positions too long, since competence is the issue and not age.

    4. My personal belief is that there are people of all ages doing great work and making a difference. There are also people of all ages who believe that they have no personal or institutional power and, as a result, don’t. I definitely try to never think less about someone based on their age or any other factor beyond their control. I think that respect for others is a foundation for professional relationships until it is lost. The real solution is working with the people who care and try to make a difference rather than pushing people who can help or have talent away based on prejudices of age or whatever.

    5. Also, I always also feel uncomfortable when people say libraries aren’t at the forefront of the changes in the information/knowledge society. Maybe some libraries aren’t but it’s librarians who do the real change efforts not institutions or buildings. The thousands of librarians working in search, publishing, websites, learning design, e-books, databases, etc. are doing fine work. I know quite a few of them.

    I’ll leave it up to someone else to point out that the ‘negligence’ you’re ascribing to pre-retirement librarians are the exact same people who sustained, expanded and built most of the libraries through the 14 ‘official’ recessions since 1978 and that are threatened by the US and international tax and economic situation now.

    I know you do good work but this discussion will surely leave a bad smell. I regret that I’m motivated to comment and hope that this doesn’t serve as a forum for some ageist tirades. That’s just not going to get us where we need to be for the advocacy agenda for libraries.



    • Stephen,

      (1) I said 65 just to put a number in play. I don’t think the difference of a few years would make a difference in this since it still puts people entering the profession in the 1980’s, a long time before the internet and mobile technologies got their foothold and mainstream acceptance and use.

      (2) As I said in my last paragraph, my post is not a blanket indictment of an age group. This isn’t some sort of Logan’s Run for librarians that reach a certain age that they should be forced out of the business. One could call it ageism (since I did mention a specific number and the words ‘retirement’) but I’d rather not dance around with terminology and say, “Oh, anyone who has been in the profession since 1989” or another pre-internet date. I think I would get called out for ageism in any event.

      (3) I’ll be honest, I was debating whether to use the term negligence or incompetence when I was thinking about this little blurb of a post. I thought negligence was the nicer of the two terms on the basis that incompetence sounded worse. As you point out, incompetence might be the better and more relevant term in this case.

      No, the younger generation would not become magically talented and capable of solving all of the issues if they replaced the retiring librarians. But that’s not my question either. I’m talking about the leadership within the field from pre-internet days to now. My question is whether there was negligence in a failure to maintain political and community relationships and managing new technology and societal trends.

      (4) As stated before, I’m not advocating a witch hunt. I am someone who personally believes in hearing the best ideas no matter where they are coming from. (Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Tea Party, Progressive, etc., to use the political spectrum) I am someone who believes in the best person for the position, regardless of sex, age, race, creed, sexual orientation, fashion ability, or which end of the egg they crack when they eat it. So as much as I write about a case for retirement, it’s a bit more nuanced. (I have more to say about the arguments I make and why in (6).)

      (5) If you really wanted to pin me down on this, I think my tune would change to ‘your mileage may vary’. Libraries are so very and extremely local that it is a matter of multitude of little factors that determine where libraries are positioned in relation to their community and the forefront of changes. We get to see the best libraries in the glossy pictures of Library Journal and American Libraries and say to ourselves, “Wow, now *that’s* a library.” I’d be interested to see how much page or publication space is dedicated to assisting the ones that are lagging behind.

      I absolutely agree that there are thousands of librarians who are doing excellent work. I’m privileged to know as many as I do. I take inspiration from them and it is my motivation to do more, better, and make the library as an institution stronger.

      (6) The purpose of the Sunday Speculation posts are to throw out topics for people to toss around and debate. Perhaps it is a vestige of my brief time at law school, but I enjoy the arguments. I’ll argue a counter or unpopular viewpoint for the sake of furthering a conversation (as I am doing in this case). It’s a lab, an experiment, something to ruminate over, and tickle the mind. Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

      Is this my best piece of work? Certainly not. Do I believe in the point of view I’m touting in the post? No. But I do believe that the argument expressed was compelling enough to share and if I’m going to suggest it, I’m not going to toss it casually out there. I might as well make it a good show. This is not disingenuous, this is good debate. Perhaps it is not the best phrasing, but I think I would have gotten hit with ageism no matter how I framed it since I was asking about library leadership from pre-internet days to now.

      And if you stripped out the all of the age business, there still remains an underlying question as to the positioning of libraries within communities and society at large. I do not believe that the politicians would have come after libraries with a hatchet unless they thought it was an easy target or an unnecessary expenditure. To me, it begs the question as to why that would be.

      While you ask the question, “How does this get us where we need to be for advocacy agendas?”, my question is “In terms of advocacy, what can we learn from the past so as not to repeat it in the future?”

      My question back to you would be, in regards to the expansion of libraries from 1978, what happened to those political and community relationships that got the libraries built in the first place? Is the expansion worth it without those relationships that could possibly save them?

    • That’s just not going to get us where we need to be for the advocacy agenda for libraries.

      This does propel me to ask you, Andy: how do you reconcile this post with big-tent librarianship?

  3. Andy:

    On the final question: “My question back to you would be, in regards to the expansion of libraries from 1978, what happened to those political and community relationships that got the libraries built in the first place? Is the expansion worth it without those relationships that could possibly save them?”

    The simplest answer is that those people and the people/politicians they built the relationship with retired or were voted out of office. These relationships need to be continuously cultivated, evolved and sustained, and worked on through the political process and through association work. As can be noted ad nauseum, many next gen librarians (certainly not all) have abandoned library associations (I have seen the demographic and renewal membership numbers) and, according to research surveys, distrust the political process and vote/participate at very low rates on top of GenX being a small generational cohort. So we’re in a Catch 22. How do we engage the next generation of advocates in library issues? For ten years, I’ve help to run a week long leadership camp for librarians who are 5-10 years out of L/I-school. We now have over 340 folks trained and working on sustaining libraries in Canada and we have not had the disasters that have befallen some US libraries. This isn’t the only reason but it helps.

    One humorous story I heard once: “An man of about 64 was talking to his grandchildren. The kids said, “Grampa, you’re too old to deal with this Internet stuff. We have mobile internet, websites, Google and everything. How will you survive since you didn’t grow up with it?” Grampa looked at them kindly and said, “Well kids, my generation invented the Internet, the web and mobile phones. My question to you is, ‘What are you going to do with it?'”

    I think the last 18 days and watching young students form a ring around the Library of Alexandrina to protect it was inspiring. Seeing the incarcerated Google exec use his Google 20% free time on Twitter and Facebook to start bringing down the Mubarak administration, and #egypt and more, show libraries the way and that the power is in the social networks of real people and engaging users and not in the echo chamber of library land. That’s where I am investing my 20% time – with end users. I am sitting here tonight in Tokyo where I met with people from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Filipinos, Singaporeans, and more. We talked about the impact of libraries and how to get better, In the next 2 weeks I’m doing open public meetings with citizens in Texas and Toledo OH before heading to Oman. I’ve used my web presence to support the #savelibraries folks in the UK. It’s small stuff but it takes many voices to make a choir.

    I’ll take you at your word and watch future Sunday posts. I want to share more things about how to make a difference rather than whom to blame.



    • Thank you for your reply, Stephen.

      I see that we are at two different perspectives on this particular topic. You are looking for ways to fix the issues and I have presented an accountability question. Neither is wrong and I happen to be more in line with your thinking because the time and energy searching for someone to hold accountable is time and energy that is not being used to fix the problem. However, I don’t think accountability should get completely set aside. If I keep having the same leak in the house, I’m not going to call the same plumber to fix it.

      (Yes, this goes back to competence rather than negligence.)

      As to how to engage the next generation of library advocates and leaders within the profession in the absence of library associations, I’m rather stumped as to that one as well. I am a member of my state library association and am involved in it. I’m not a member of ALA and personally do not feel that I am at a disadvantage because of it. I know people who are members and get benefits from that membership; I don’t fault anyone for that.

      For myself, it returns to the question about organization agility. I’m an impatient fellow. I bristle at the idea of waiting for a committee to make a decision regarding something I want to act upon now. Is there advantages to waiting for a more thoughtful and processed action? Yes. But that doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I’d rather go build something myself.

      I appreciate you taking me at my word. I don’t know how else to make disclaimers regarding this post short of not posting it at all. And while some might think that’s my best course of action, I disagree with that assessment entirely.

      • Oh, but I think there is a dovetail between accountability and advocacy. If you’re going to convince people outside the system that it provides meaningful value, you have to have evidence that it does so — and isn’t that the definition of accountability?

  4. I’m not too sure how to contribute to this discussion. I don’t necessarily agree with how the argument is constructed, mainly with the age part. I realize that you are not trying to commit to ageism, but why not focus it primarily on accountability? The librarian profession seems to show a lack of accountability, and incompetence is allowed until the very breaking point. It’s easy to say that since there are (presumably) more people of an older generation than new that they are to be blamed; at the same time I have seen incompetence, lack of ambition, lack of accountability, etc with people my age. Hell, maybe some people would accuse me of this, I’m not really sure (I doubt it, but I hope not).

    I hope that this debate morphs more into focusing how we can set higher expectations within the profession, how we weed out those that do lack accountability in higher positions, and how those that are left can help build a new foundation to further the profession. I think this is where the idea started, but moved to focusing on a particular age group because….actually I’m not sure why. Maybe because what I mentioned (accountability, ambition and incompetence) has already been discussed and this is a way to bring up the topic from a fresh angle. But I personally have not seen anything that would make the case that Gen X/Gen Y would do a bang up job just for the fact that we’re younger and, supposedly, more in tune with new technology and ideas.

    • I agree that a greater culture of accountability needs to be developed in libraries. It seems that for too long they have operated in a black box to the financial backers (whether they be a town or city or a university). Many are uncertain about what libraries do, or even if they have an idea wonder if the libraries accomplish their goals. Too often I have seen the comment that libraries are considered a financial black hole where money disappears with little or no result. With greater reporting of the library’s results both to themselves and to their stakeholders, maybe we’d still be in the same straits, but we would not have to fight as hard to prove our relevancy.

      A brief anecdote to close. Part of my current internship is developing a learning outcomes assessment for the library’s instruction program. Last week I sent out a request for information on library instruction mission statements on several listservs. For the most part, people were great and I got a bunch of good resources. On one listserv in particular though, I encountered an amazing degree of hostility – both to the concept of mission statements and to the very idea of assessing the outcomes of a library’s program. The person said, “and I also find the burden of developing documents that describe how you are helping students learn sometimes takes you away from important things like – uh, helping students learn.” My thought here was that this library obviously has never had to account for its actions or expenditures of time and money to its stakeholders.

      Libraries have to develop means of showing the results of what they provide, and in many cases this is beyond things like gate counts, circulation numbers, and reference questions answered. To go back to Andy’s original topic, it is the lack of these sort of assessment tools and the dim view of library’s relevancy in today’s world that we have to lay at the feet of current library leadership (and it really pains me to say something like that to my potential employers – don’t hold it against me, please). This does not just include library directors, but also the leadership of the library associations – these are the folks that are supposed to be guides and guardians of the profession. While they may not be the ones solely responsible, they’re the ones at the top, where the buck stops. With the accolades for success also come the censure for failures.

      • I was at a meeting the other day with some mid-size academic library heads and found out that they lack having many important policies/concepts written down anywhere. For example: discrimination and confidentiality policies

      • Appearing as a black hole on a governmental financial sheet with no discernible benefit is the result of a lack of relationship between the library and the governing body. If I recall correctly, the return of investment for library spending is between 5 and 6 (as in, for every 1 dollar spent on libraries, 5-6 dollars worth of materials and services are returned). It also gets to the heart of my question in the original post:

        Where are these relationships?

        As Stephen pointed out, political environments changes. Politicians get voted in and out. Librarians can leave the area. And the relationships can fall to the wayside. For all the efforts that that generation has put in to make and adapt, it can be gone for want of a rapport with budget decision makers.

        As to assessing competence, perhaps I’ll make that another blog post in and of itself.

  5. I agree that the issue here is competence rather than age. I also agree that libraries have been run into the ground by poor management, and absolutely there is a distinct lack of accountability. I think this is less about someone’s age, and more to do with stereotypes and misinformation about what a library, and working in a library is like.

    Most peers I see in the profession have come into it because they think it’s an easy ride, somewhere nice and quiet to potter around putting books back in order. Some school children ask me if there are any part time jobs going. It’s this attitude that is the problem, which can only be changed by those at the top and working downwards. That is naturally going to be older people, because it will naturally be people who have been doing it longer.

    • I agree. I’m still in school and perhaps I am terribly mistaken, but the impression I’m getting is that many classmates put zero effort into learning about current library issues or think about ways to become leaders in the field. Instead, they think of this as being the easy path of least resistance.

      Admittedly, I never thought of myself as a future librarian until the last few years. I wanted to be an animator. But I’ve now poured my heart into this and am eager to advocate for the library and inspire communities to remember that small building is one of wonder and hope instead of being a black-hole for taxpayer money that some people seem to think it is.

      • There is something that makes me cringe on the inside when people say, “Oh, I want to be a librarian because I love books.”


        Books are but one of the commodities we deal in. Our real job is people. Because sometimes they don’t want books. Beyond people, it is the issues around the profession between funding, information access, and intellectual freedom (to name but a few).

        Wow, that whole notion of being the path of least resistance. That’ll bother me for the rest of the day.

        • Yeah, that makes me cringe on the inside too. As well as the belief that librarianship is the path of least resistance.

          • I’ll probably get nailed for this observation, but unfortunately, I think many enter this profession seeing it as a path of least resistance. How many librarians entered the profession after deciding they’ve had enough being a 1) teacher, 2) astronaut, 3) brain surgeon, 4) whatever, and see librarianship as a nice way to spend their final few years before cruising into retirement?

            Consider that we’re the only profession that requires at least one degree in another (often completely unrelated) subject. In my 32 years as a librarian, I’ve met a grand total of one person who knew she wanted to be a librarian while she was still in high school. Everyone else I’ve ever met drifted into it slowly while studying something else as an undergraduate or graduate student.

            I did not become a librarian because I saw it as “an easy ride, somewhere nice and quiet to putter around putting books back in order.” But clearly the idea that librarianship is a path of least resistance is appealing to even today’s students, as evidenced by comments from Amanda and Joanne above.

            • Well now you can make that two people. I have wanted to be a librarian since I was six years old and life got in the way. I have worked in a library ever since the 6th grade and I received my masters when I was 40. But I never thought of it as the path of least resistance. I thought of it as finally getting to do my dream job helping PEOPLE find information (and sometimes books) that they need or want or maybe even never thought they would like. I work hard trying to make my library an essential part of the community but I keep getting told that “Oh we have a little library in my retirement community so I don’t need your services.” That is a major part of why I am looking for another job in a place where that attitude is not the prevailing one. We have no connection to the local government other than our tax money which they feel free to move around as they please because most of the local government people live in over 55 communities with a little donated library and they don’t see the need for degree-ed librarians when their little volunteer people do just fine for them. Sorry for the rant – that is a subject for another post.

  6. What Stephen Abram said.

    And in the US we do have the ADEA, Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Created in part because of the negative impact on those of us over 40 in terms of discrimination in hiring, retention, and firing based on, among other things, the belief that those who are older are incompetent or negligent and just can’t do the job the young folk can. That, and saving money on salaries.

    I guess I should stop saying my age publicly, as my late date in getting an MLIS gives the appearance of being younger than I am.

    I’m having a hard time believing you would have written this about any other protected class.

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  8. Andy I know you like to be controversial but please tell me you did not just state that an entire group of people is negligent based on their age? Either that or tell me you were drunk when you wrote this.

    • I did not.

      “Before anyone sharpens their pitchfork or wraps another kerosene soaked rag around their torch (for me or the premise of this post), I am just putting forth an argument for the sake of a lively discussion and not suggesting a course of action. It is not meant as a litmus test for anyone to retire. This is also not meant as a blanket indictment of older librarians despite its tone. I just thought it was a better argument for librarians to retire than making it age based. I’m curious for people’s reactions, especially any counterarguments.”

  9. I’m 49, have been working in libraries for 7 years and just got my MSLS this past December. I don’t think the problem is negligence by “older” librarians. I think Joe touched on one of the main problems–the personalities and attitudes of many librarians, old and young. My biggest frustration to date in this field has been running up against the rigidity and inflexibility of many who have been working in libraryland for years and years. As Joe said, many of these people are task and detail-oriented and worry about the smallest details rather than looking at the big picture. We need a fresh mindset and that mindset can come from old or young minds. Age does not define youth, if that makes sense. I know 80-year-olds who have a more youthful outlook than some 30-year-olds. We do need creativity in librarianship. Whoever is best able to provide creative and innovative leadership should be at the helm regardless of age.

    • Absolutely, Bonnie.

      My question would be how to foster that kind of leadership and creativity. Can it be fostered?

      I wouldn’t disregard the task and detail oriented since they keep the library running. There is a place for those kinds of people and I certainly couldn’t do my job without them

  10. Oh, Andy, I love you so.

    I find this perspective interesting. I do want to point out — and I trust you know this, but it may not be clear — that arguments about groups are not the same as arguments about individuals; even if your argument is entirely true, there still can be (and are) lots of older librarians who are visionary, innovative, forward-thinking, et cetera, and who have led their libraries dynamically. The problem is not so much one of older librarians being a problem across the board (even if you are right) but of getting the ideas of the good leaders to scale.

  11. I agree with Stephen and Liz.

    I am beyond disappointed with this post, especially from someone who is widely regarded as an emerging leader in our profession. I’m a 2nd generation librarian, both my mother and my aunt retired in the last few years with about 40 years in the field each. One began in 1970 (long before the 1980s, the time you seem to distastefully suggest is when it all went wrong), and the other began in 1969. My mom was a high school librarian and the director of my hometown’s public library, for 4 years she did both full time. I’ve spend literally my entire life in libraries.

    I’m 32, and those of us just leaving library school in the past 5-10 years are part of an instant gratification/what have you done for me lately generation entering the field. With one blog post, you’ve dismissed an entire group of INDIVIDUALS, many of whom are absolute pioneers for libraries, many of whom have made it possible for us to do what we’re doing today. Are there incompetent, or even negligent, librarians in the field spanning all ages? YES. But the harder you try to justify your comments and tweak them, the worse this post gets.

    Who do you think is responsible for automating libraries? For moving us away from things like microfiche and towards databases? Who is responsible for every precious computer in ever library that allows the new guard to explore social networking and the Next Big Thing to transform our profession? This post seems to forget about these pioneering changes from the generation that you’ve put out in the cold here, no matter how hard you try to say otherwise. These changes happened with decades of work, years of dealing with boards and trustees who hold the purse strings and often take the credit when things are working.

    I know we’re used to fast fast fast these days, and it’s very easy (and dangerous) for us to assume that with our few years of experience we can turn it all around in no time. This is not the first crisis of job shortages and public misunderstanding that our profession has ever faced, and let’s not forget that the current retirement-age population of librarians had their own “old guard” to fight against to bring libraries as far as they’ve come today.

    I’ve become exhausted by the negativity that happens within our field. If we really want to move libraries forward, let’s stop that and start building on the incredible changes librarians (of all ages) have made in the past 30 years. We have an opportunity to advocate to the masses, through new media, in a way that our predecessors never had access to. So let’s make it positive.

    Guess what the #1 complaint is about libraries that I hear now from people outside the field? It isn’t the stereotype of old librarians, it’s about how much we complain as a profession. And they’re not hearing that from the retirement age.

    • I’m sorry to hear that you are disappointed in my post. I’m not disappointed in your reply nor in the replies of others. You make excellent points about the changes that the profession has made its way through in the intervening years. And for those changes, I am thankful for their efforts.

      But your reply still doesn’t answer my original (and since I feel I must point it out again, hypothetical) question regarding the maintaining of political and community relationships. You can point to all the changes they made, but without the political or community will to maintain the library (built through the cultivation of those relationships over time), a lot of the previously mentioned efforts can be wiped out in a stroke of a budget pen.

      It is sad to me (a tragedy, really) that all of that effort could be so easily discarded for want of a rapport with the people who have power over the budgets. That’s the kernel of my point here. That was my specific question. I’d direct you to Stephen’s reply above that does answer my question.

      I wasn’t attacking your mother or your aunt, either. So you know.

      (1) In your opinion, why is there so much complaining abotu the profession?
      (2) Why do you think there is so much negativity? What kind of negativity do you think is frivolous and which kind have merit?

  12. I’d agree that this post is pretty adversarial and though I generally do admire your comments, I don’t feel like this advances the conversation.

    In fact, I think it plays into the hands of those who, as Jackie comments, already buy into the stereotypes of the “old” librarians.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with incompetence or irrelevance.

    Having worked in libraries since high school, and for decades since then, one thing is clear–when economies are bad, libraries (and other support services) suffer. Social supports for children and women, support for education, medicaid support–all go on the chopping block whenever the economy goes south.

    I think it says something more about our society than about the people we employ.

    It’s a very complex question of course, and no matter whether your point was intended to stir up conversation, it slanders a large portion of our profession who have done great work in leading us forward and who are still doing so.

    • Thank you for your comment, Carolyn.

      You make an excellent point regarding the economy and how social supports tend to be seen as targets for cuts. The bare necessities argument gets dragged out in saying that other non-governmental agencies will take over the costs and expenditures. During the advocacy efforts in New Jersey during the budget crunch last year, libraries were in competition for funding for these other programs. You could see people wavering when they realized this; they wanted to support planned parenthood and domestic abuse programs and the others. But, to do so, they would have to turn down library funding.

      I’m curious: which conversation is this not advancing?

  13. Am a bit rattled by this post and have just deleted most of what I was going to – cautiously – say. Two quick points:

    1. Defining digital and IT competence in terms of age strata doesn’t work. The ahem ‘concept’ of Digital Natives being a prime example of something that falls to pieces under not very much examination.

    2. You are either secure in your job, or hoping that no-one on the interview panel for your next potential employer reads this post? 😉

    • Since it’s a hypothetical, I am comfortable with posting it. If I actually felt this way, I would not advertise it.

      I would not define competence in terms of age since it’s illegal to do so. I do know of libraries that have made their own core competencies when it comes to reference work and mandate that staff pass it. I dont think that’s a bad thing, either.

  14. Very interesting post and discussion. I actually just finished publishing a post on the apparent lack of IT competencies in librarianship with a call to all of us to get it together and bring our institutions up to speed by taking charge or our own educational and technological advancement. I admire your taking on this topic and so boldly. I entirely agree with Andromeda’s claim “that arguments about groups are not the same as arguments about individuals” and I assume that was the point of this article. Like it or not, SOME of our leaders in LIS are out of touch, especially in the Professorate, and that is a problem. There are many capable professionals who have done amazing work in their time, but it is always true that times they are a’changing, and new blood can be a good thing. I don’t think this is a fight between young and old as much as between those who “get it” and those who don’t. I’d like to think we can still learn much from our predecessors, and that we will continue to after they retire.

    As a word of encouragement, I appreciate your willingness to open up these discussions, complex as they may be. I did read that last paragraph of the post. 😉

    • When it comes to IT competencies, it’s a varied and local issue. It can be different from town to town, even. It would be nice for MLS programs to make a core class of IT competencies that would put people at least at a basic level of understanding. I would advise a required last semester seminar on current library issues as well so that people are not parachuted into the profession without an idea of some of the things that are going on.

      It’s interesting that you have selected the Professorate, but I shouldn’t be too surprised by someone who started HackLibSchool. What would you suggest as a means of solving this problem?

      And the real grinder of a question is how do we determine who gets it and who doesn’t?

    • Your reply is awesome!

      I’ve found this entire thread pretty interesting because very quickly out came people who had clearly not read Andy’s entire post and were quick to make snap judgments about his stance when they don’t want people making snap judgments about *them.*

      • No, I don’t think it was about *them”. I think they were taking on the faulty underlying premise at the question was based on. It’s what people do in a debate; how can they answer my question when they believe there is a defect in the way the question is formulated?

        Would I have preferred them to answer the underlying question? Yes, and some did. But others have taken to that point. That’s their right and I’ve replied as best I can to them.

  15. I read the entire post. I understand the “hypothetical.” And it’s still generational generalization–there’s just no way around that.

    Otherwise, I would only say that, given the current Supremes, the idea that ADEA actually protects us old folk from age-related employment discrimination is laughable. Great theory, but as long as employers can show any other reason for termination or unequal treatment, they’re going to win an age-discrimination suit.

    Do I feel this post is at all helpful to advancing libraries and librarianship? Nope. Quite the contrary. But hey, I’m old, so who cares?

    • Surely you are not implying that people should only be posting entries that advance libraries and librarianship. Although, it would cut down on my Google Reader content significantly.

      • Of course I wasn’t implying that all posts should be designed to advance libraries and librarianship–but that certainly seemed to be your underlying intent in this case. And I generally don’t think that generalizations help in that cause, whether about (most) libraries being in trouble (a really tough case to make for the 12,000 public libraries) or about (most) of the librarians from the generation that created the internet are now incompetent.

        But since you’ve already issued a mea culpa of sorts, I’ll let it go at that. (Oh, and Will? The war between the generations started a LONG time ago…)

  16. Pingback: WILL UNWOUND #361: “The War between the Library Generations Has Started” « Will Unwound

  17. Pingback: Mea Culpa « Agnostic, Maybe

  18. I, for one, am looking forward to retirement. I’m tired of fighting to justify what should be a no-brainer: good libraries equipped with credentialed professionals, adequate or above-average budgets, and support from the community. I’m tired of trying to decide if I can afford to buy a few e-readers. I’m tired of having gotten $0 for my budget for the past two years and watching a new football stadium and gym being built. I’m tired of doing presentation after presentation to the school board about what we do and not being taken seriously. I’m tired of begging teachers to let me provide instruction in online research. I’m tired of begging teachers to use the online databases we pay for. I’m tired of it all.

    I realize the post was aimed at public libraries, but it’s much the same in school libraries. And I’m tired of it. Let the young ones have it.

  19. Andy, your comments are intriguing, but as others have said, the generalizations ultimately leave me cold. The other thing that concerns me is the apparent equalization of IT excellence with success in the new, grand library future. As an “oldster” who is interested in technology, but also in community engagement and collaboration, I see many of the new library generation with tech skills but not the people skills it takes to “sell” the library. I’ve had complaints from older patrons that the young person showing them something on the computer went so fast they couldn’t understand, and would not listen to their pleas to slow down. I see young librarians furiously blogging while not looking up to smile at people coming into the building.

    When I’ve done guest lectures in library school classes, students have told me that my spiel is the first time they’ve learned about the soft skills in the reference interview. They’ve never heard about the concepts of universal access to provide safe and welcoming environments for those of all ages and abilities.

    It’s not age, it’s an interest in the people and an ability to make connections beyond the virtual. We need both sets of skills, and more. I don’t think everyone gets that.

  20. Andy, great post! I applaud your courage to articulate thoughts that are not politically correct but that need to be aired. The truth is I identify strongly on a personal level with what you are saying about retirement. I retired at the age of 58 because I knew someone younger could do a better job. I was burned out, I had lost flexibility, and I began taking myself way too seriously. I needed to get out and get a life. My energies were sapped and my sense of creativity had dried up. The last thing I wanted was to drag the workplace down because I no longer was the manager I was a my peak. I also didn’t really understand the new technologies and I didn’t have the right skill set to move forward progressively. The happy ending to my story is that retirement is wonderful. It’s a great place to reinvent yourself. Thanks, Andy, for having the courage to get the conversation started on a very difficult and politically incorrect subject area. The thought that young librarians like you are moving up in the ranks makes me feel very good about the future of libraries. Hang in there. Sure, you’ll get some flack, but real leaders know how to handle it. You are on the right path.

  21. Will Manley over at Will Unwound picked up this post, so I decided to post here what I said there.


    I finished my MLS in 1993 at the dawn of the internet era. This was before Windows 95, before graphical browsers, before Google, before HTML (for the most part), before most people knew what a modem was.

    In my job at a small museum, I straddle the cultural divide. Those older than me, more tenured, or more senior in rank, are easily intimidated by innovations I’ve been pushing, such as using Google Docs instead of passing attachments around for input and then having to laboriously reconcile the different versions, not to mention wasting scarce server space on storing multiple copies of the same files in everyone’s In box. And then there’s my proposal to move our email to free Gmail. Too scary.

    Those younger than me or junior in rank are well-versed in social media and are generally tasked with implementing digital technologies in museum exhibits.

    So I get where Andy is coming from, even though I work in a museum instead of a public library.

    Now, having said that, museum work has given me fresh appreciation for where libraries have been early adopters and shapers of digital technologies, and that is in the establishment of the MARC record and OCLC. This project surely began before Andy was born, hence his lack of appreciation for it.

    My librarian predecessors in this museum started cataloging the collection in OCLC almost 30 years ago. The result is that my bibliographic records are available to the world in an open source, remotely hosted online catalog. This year’s budget will also enable me to display them in WorldCat. (Why my WorldCat bill should be twice as much as my OCLC cataloging bill is a rantfest for another day.)

    My counterpart who manages “collections,” which is what we call the museum’s 3-D artifacts, everything from a coat button to a Pierce-Arrow, is about 20 years behind us librarians when it comes to cataloging his stuff.

    He has no equivalent to the MARC record, no utility such as OCLC, no searchable online catalog for the public to browse his holdings, no WorldCat for his holdings to show up in the same big pot with every other museum’s.

    Our museum uses Past Perfect to catalog its artifacts, but that is one proprietary product among many with no standard format like MARC as a foundation. If Past Perfect fails, his records will be captive to it the way you might have documents captive to WordStar or any other obsolete software. If the company hosting my records fails or I decide not to do business with them any longer, I download my records and find someone else to host them.

    This is a technological and cultural achievement –by those pitiful 65 years olds–that should not be underestimated.

  22. This was originally posted on Will Manley’s site

    First, let me be clear. I’m a public librarian speaking from a public library perspective. The politics and budgetary structures of academia are beyond my ken.

    I don’t know is Hippocrates said it, but he should have: “Be sure that you’d made the right diagnosis before you prescribe a remedy.” If Andy’s position is that the financial state of libraries is due to the incompetence or the negligence of a generation of librarians, I think that the diagnosis is based on the wrong metric and in wrong. When you analyze a complex problem and come up with a simple solution, you run that risk.

    An easy way to test Andy’s hypothesis is to look at some comparable libraries and see if they have the same problem. Fortunately, there is a set of libraries that are comparable: Canadian public libraries. Do Canadian libraries have budget problems? Of course they do, if budget problems is defined as being in a state of competition with other services for soft-service (not fire, police or roads) dollars. Nevertheless, there is no Illinois-like shutdown of systems, no Texas or California-like elimination of state funding, no Boston-like mandated closing of multiple branches. To the best of my knowledge, only Toronto is facing a mayor who is demanding that they close a branch. And the Board there is in effect telling the mayor, ala Cee Lo Green, um, “Fuuuugit you.” Telling the story of the City of Toronto and its most recent election would triple the size of this post and it’s only interesting to Ontarians, so I won’t.

    If they don’t have the same problems, either the thesis is flawed or Canadian librarians Of A Certain Age are markedly more competent, markedly more engaged, or markedly less negligent than their American counterparts. As a Canadian library director who turned 65 six weeks ago, I can assure you that the latter is not the case. External conditions are a bigger driver than the characteristics of American library managers. I’d talk about a number of issues that come into play — California’s constitutional structure that makes it ungovernable; the United States’ pathological fear of Keynesian economics and the panic that ensues when deficit spending becomes necessary; fear-based politics that become more and more central to government at every level.

    Saying that a generation of library managers in the United States should be gone because libraries got into financial difficulty on their watch is like saying that a generation of public health officials should be replaced because the response to more than 10,000 gun related homicides per year is resulting in…the loosening of gun restrictions.

    That’s not to say that my generation of librarians is without blame. In the Dark Tower series, Stephen King used one of the most scathing rebukes in literature: “You have forgotten the face of your father.” We forgot the face of our father for at least two decades. We defined libraries as “The Information Place” long past the time that it became clear that information is placeless. It is our fault that the emergence of The Google has become a lever for those who would de-fund our institutions. We let an instrumentality masquerade as our mission. Gerry Meek, the (60+ ish) CEO of Calgary Public Library, delivered a brilliant summary of the role of the public library at a recent conference, “The public library is a community development tool disguised as a leisure service.” If we had been managing and building with that vision in mind over the last generation, American libraries would still be in rough shape in this economy, but I’d like the odds better.

  23. I am posting under a pseudonym for a number of reasons. However, I want to take issue with a basic premise. But first…I am not yet 60, and have been a librarian since 1976. I blog, tweet, “Facebook,” etc. I have been in a leadership position in ALA, and, I like to think, have encouraged new voices as well as having been helped along technologically by some of those new voices.

    My issue is that you are broad-brush stroking both a generation of librarian leaders, and a situation. You say It represents a failure to lead, a failure to recognize emerging trends, and a failure to act accordingly.

    My perspective is that yes, there are some library leaders who are less effective than others. HOWEVER, in a large number of cases, while fighting the societal (at least in the US) pressure to provide more services with less funding, libraries (at least public libraries) are coming out better than many other agencies. I can tell you that in the very large organization of which the library I work in is a part, the library was the only part which did not have lay-offs last year, and the operating budget was reduced less than any other agency. Did we get an increase? NO, but we did better in the “budget wars” than any other part of the larger organization. Why? Leadership of the library.

    From my view, I have seen this played out in city after city, county after county, state after state.

    Is the economy good? No. Are taxpayers willing to pay for us? Well, actually sometimes. Over 80% of the tax elections in Ohio last year resulted in new funding sources for libraries which had state dollars cut from under them.

    In very many places the library (and I know most about public and academic libraries) is doing as well as, or better than, any other part of the larger organization.

    I found it both interesting and heartening that the folks in AASL (American Association for School Librarians) are keeping the “L-word” in their name and no longer calling themselves “School Library Media Specialists.” They are back to being “School Librarians.” Why? I think part of it is the good feeling that the term “librarian” usually generates, and the understanding of what we can do.

    Walt Crawford in the latest (March 2011) Cites and Insights quotes a blogger who paraphrased him in saying Libraries need to build their own brand from books not by running away from books.

  24. Andy, I might also submit it is the problem of your generational hubris, the over packing of Library School programs and a slight inclination of your generation to want to start at the top rather than work your way there.
    Oh and the slight problem of ALA’s accreditation process not allowing proscriptive recommendations so we can upgrade – there – can you say useless? – I knew you could.

    I wrote on Will’s blog and copy it here: When I entered the profession in 1989, some your same annoyances came out of my mouth also.

    Like why weren’t we taking charge and doing more w/ the nascent WWW? I was blown off – not only blown off but scornfully blown off by my professional elders.

    When I argued in the 1990’s, that ALA should build a filter so we could be sure it just filtered what we wanted it to (and make some $ for our professional Assoc.) at the same time – well obviously I’m a heretic and should be burned at the stake.

    When I argued in ALA Council as a Councilor at Large that we should stick to “Library Business” and a lot of the things on the agenda should rightfully be shifted to IFLA or even the ACLU – I was not only blown off, but vilified by the left.

    So, good on yah Andy, you charge right in there, for all the good you can do and the good it will do.

    However, don’t be surprised if inertia conquers you and in the meantime – sorry – not retiring anytime soon – but if anyone is looking in 2021 – there will be an opening at U.C. Berkeley unless they decide not to fill the position – since it’s all digital you know.

  25. In a word: Nonsense. I don’t know who this guy thinks he is but he sounds like a lot of young people who want the world handed to them on a silver platter, then complain that the silver is not sufficiently polished. He’s another kid who didn’t get a Corvette in the driveway on his sixteenth birthday and is pissed, someone who thinks a college degree or two from a private university is his right, owed to him by his parents. People like this are angry they did not inherit a perfect world and so blame the previous generation.

    Spoiled, snot-nosed, whiny, pretentious brats who have never done anything meaningful in their lives condemning the life work of a generation which has accomplished much, and certainly much more than the next ever will. Consider, if you would be so kind, what the last generation of retiring librarians has done:

    We entered the library world when women were required to wear dresses and nylons, where the sign above the Reference Desk said “Shhhh!” and meant it, where stodgy grey haired old men in dusty suits would occasionally venture out of their wood paneled offices to sniff at the dusty rows of old books sitting on the shelves, never checked out. Children were required to stay in the children’s area. They could not check out mysteries or adult books at all. If you wanted to put a book on “reserve” (a hold in today’s terminology) it would cost you a dime or even a quarter. Interloans were unthinkable.

    In the middle of all this was an intimidating card catalog. If you couldn’t spell, tough. If you couldn’t guess the language of the arcane subject headings of a “controlled vocabulary” you were out of luck. If you wanted something other than books you had magazines, which you tried to reconnoiter with a periodical index as bewildering as the card catalog. Or you could browse through a pamphlet file where your chances of finding anything useful were next to zilch. That was it. And in branches you often did not find a card catalog at all. They were expensive to produce. In a branch a “New Book Shelf” was considered an innovation.

    Clerks spent hundreds of man years typing overdue notices on manual typewriters. They settled accounts in huge double-entry bookkeeping ledgers and added sums on a crank manual calculator. They fawned over the shelf list as if it were a golden path to knowledge. A telephone was a luxury few had on their desks. There was no such thing as a copy machine. A fax? What in Heaven’s name was that?

    Now here comes Sonny Boy, who has never seen a card catalog in his life, expecting broad band WiFi for his iPad, who whines like a baby if the Internet is down for more than two seconds. Who do you think put WiFi in the library in the first place, son? We did. We did before you even knew what WiFi was.

    So Sonny sits down at the catalog, types any old phrase he can think of, and suddenly, despite his misspellings (with no “controlled vocabulary”) suddenly he can see where all the books in all the libraries are, whether they are on the shelf, checked out, in transit, or on hold. And if he wants one, with the push of a couple of buttons, it’s now scheduled to be in his hands, often within a day.

    Who do you think did that, Sonny? We did. We designed it and built it and designed it and built it and designed it and built it again. How do you think those bibliographic records got online, Sonny? We did that, too. It took decades of hard work getting all that information online so that you could get at it with a push of a button. Do you even know what MARC means, Sonny? Do you know what a subfield tag is? Do you know WHY they are even there? Of course not. That was before your time. You won’t ever have to deal with it. No big reels of tape for you, Sonny. Now it’s all on automatic pilot. Lucky for you. We did that. We did that for you.

    So Sonny sits down and “discovers’ all this online periodical information, from Infotrac to Genealogy—tons of stuff, paid for by the library, available free of charge, and he just expects it to be there. It’s a fabulous amount of information. We did that, Sonny, and boy did we struggle! At first it came on CD-ROMs, all different kinds, all incompatible, so we yelled at the vendors and said, “Put this stuff on the Web, you idiots!” and finally, they did. And for that matter, we put them there Internets in the libraries before you owned your first cell phone. Want to live life through a 1200 baud modem? Lucky for you, we got rid of them. We did that, too. Oh, and you can get all this stuff from home, too, can’t you? Isn’t that nice? We did that, too.

    Oh, and Sonny. I know your grandma is getting a little old. Do the nice library people come in their nice library vans and give nice large print books to your Granny on a regular basis? They do? We did that. There was no such thing as an “Outreach” Department when we started in library land, wearing our dresses and nylons. (well, not me.) Oh, and that’s a pretty nice library your sitting in, huh? We built that, too. Hopefully you’ll be able to build a library some day. That would be a real eye-opener. See if you can handle it.

    The fact is, Sonny, that we took libraries as we found the, stodgy old places full of dusty old books and people, places that were so quiet you could hear a pin drop—because no one was there—and we turned them into vital, creative community centers full of current relevant information. We ripped down the “Shhhh!” signs and invited people in. Now we are busier than we ever have been before.

    And you dare to presume to “indict” my generation? I can’t indict you for anything more than a piss-poor attitude because you haven’t actually DONE anything but bitch. I do know one thing. There is no way that you will preside over the breadth and depth of change in the profession that we did. Your challenges will be lightweight in comparison because the fact is, we’ve already done the heavy lifting for you. I look back at my career and see that I was privileged to be in the profession during a time of profound change. In retrospect, it is amazing to see that I started with a manual typewriter and onion skin paper and wound up creating a gateway to knowledge.

    I look back with satisfaction at what my generation was able to accomplish. Compared to where we were and where we are now, it ushers up the old phrase, “I’ve forgotten more than you will ever know.” And when you look back at your own career in a few years I wonder if you will be wondering yourself whether you have done anything worthwhile at all. So far, I’m not at all impressed.

    (Originally on The Unwinder)

  26. Pingback: The Right Stuff « Agnostic, Maybe

  27. Pingback: The Right Stuff « Agnostic, Maybe

  28. “Shouldn’t there be some accountability from library leadership in general on this neglect? Why would the profession continue under people who have failed in such a spectacular manner?”

    YES! Absolutely agree. We should NOT become Barnes and Noble but even Ranganathan preached that libraries are a living growing organism– and to me, that means those that work within must also be flexible and willing to grow and change. So why not some of those people who are burned out….why don’t they become entrepreneurial?

    Oh right, because of health care….hard to be an entrepreneur when you can’t easily go buy affordable health care.

    Never mind……status quo

  29. Pingback: Let’s discuss important things. | Slinkster-Blog

  30. Pingback: WILL UNWOUND #363: “Rant Wednesday at the Unwinders Tavern – Is it unAmerican to Retire?” « Will Unwound

  31. Pingback: WILL UNWOUND #365: “Fantasy Friday at the Unwinders Tavern – Retirement Reveries” « Will Unwound

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  34. Pingback: Can we stop arguing about age? at Attempting Elegance

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