Last spring I did a research consultation with a student who was preparing to work on her senior thesis. She was smart, focused, motivated, and self-directed, and in addition to discussing the research process and research resources, we talked about what it is like to work in libraries.
The young lady got back in touch with me this fall, saying she’s thinking of going to library school after she graduates. So a colleague and I met with her to tell her more about our work and suggest areas in which she is already interested that she might pursue. For instance, we discussed how working with data, knowledge, and experience in the sciences and gaining expertise in various technologies can set her apart from other candidates for library positions. We also introduced her (via email) to library personnel in access services, administration, data services, reference and research, and the sciences, so they could give her their various perspectives and contexts. She followed up on these introductions immediately, showing both initiative and excellent communication skills. If she does choose to go to library school, she will offer the profession—and any library lucky enough to hire her—tremendous intelligence, savvy, experience, and energy.
I believe this is an important component of our work: to encourage potential librarians and help new ones to grow in the profession. Given the changing nature of our work, it can be overwhelming for newcomers to learn how to navigate complex library environments, along with everything else they need to learn just to begin to do the job. Filling them in on the nuances of working in those environments is an important service we seasoned librarians can provide—only we have to still be in the job to provide this guidance and assistance; we can’t do it if we’re not in libraries.
I’ve always felt that if I was going to continue to be a librarian, I needed to keep learning and changing along with my work environment. That means being responsive to the needs of the researchers I serve and learning continuously what I need to know to serve them well, whether that relates to new technologies or new ways of working or of collaborating and networking. To quote Woody Allen at the zenith of his career, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” As a librarian I figure I need constantly to move forward, too. Most of us don’t ever want to personify what happens when the shark stops moving forward!
Few people become librarians to make wads of money. If that’s their goal, they quickly realize their mistake and move on to more highly remunerative jobs. Librarianship is a highly respectable profession, but it’s not likely to make you a multimillionaire (if I’m wrong about this I’d really appreciate hearing what I’ve been missing all these years). And based on what and who I’ve seen in my library career, I do believe that most of us do the work because we love it and believe in it.
So I’m amazed when I hear anyone say that seasoned librarians have a responsibility to retire to “make room for others.” On what plaque is that sentiment engraved? Did I miss a day in library school when they talked about that? When I graduated from library school there were so few jobs, I contemplated a cross-country move for a position that paid $4,800 (no, I’m not so old that that was considered a good salary). It never occurred to me that librarians who were already employed should feel a moral imperative to be kicked to the curb to make room for me. I worked part-time jobs and gained relevant experience any way I could for several years before I finally got my first full-time job.
I wonder how many librarians can afford to retire early, or even “not so early,” in this—or frankly, in any—economy? I can’t. I have a mortgage to pay. I suspect that most of us have moral, financial, and other practical imperatives facing us, such as supporting ourselves and our families. And that does apply to all of us, seasoned and new librarians alike. So by all means, seasoned librarians should be helping others prepare for, find, and successfully carry out the work we all love. But I sincerely hope no “us vs. them” friction develops among us, based on some zany, misbegotten notion that a librarian of a certain age is no longer useful, or less useful than a librarian of another age. That smacks suspiciously of age discrimination, doesn’t it? What do you think?
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