The ALA has been claiming for years that there will be librarian shortages in the future (always in the future!) because of the graying of the profession and the waves of retirements libraries will be facing. Anyone who’s made the "graying" claim doesn’t know my secrets, and the librarian shortage is almost certainly a myth, but there will necessarily be some retirements in the next few years, at least of those librarians who can afford to retire.
In fact, we’re starting to see some now. I’ve been talking to librarians around the country who work in libraries where others are finally starting to retire. The problem that some of these librarians are finding is that the wrong people retire, and contrary to ALA propaganda, they’re not being replaced.
Maybe my information is skewed by the people I know, so I’m putting the question to you. Are librarians and library workers retiring at your libraries? Are the ones who are retiring any good? And are the ones who you’d really want to retire apparently going to hang on forever? And are the good ones who are retiring not being replaced?
These are cases I’ve heard about from other annoyed librarians around the country. (Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.)
A reference department of six librarians in a mid-size university library is graying like crazy, with only one librarian being under 50. Four are eligible to retire, but of the four only one does much work. The others mainly exist to provide warm bodies for the reference desk and recycle research guides from the 1980s for students to leave behind after instruction classes, while much of the reference work is directed to the other three librarians. So, naturally, the hard-working librarian is retiring at the end of the year, but the others indicate that they’ll be working until they die. And why not? You don’t have to love work you don’t even do.
Another example is in a college library in a technical services department with three non-professional staff, only one of whom actually does any work. Or rather, did. That person retired two weeks ago and will not be replaced. The other two generally do nothing except lie for each other to cover up incompetence.
A third example is a children’s department in a public library with three librarians, two of whom are eligible for retirement. One of those stopped developing in 1970 when she graduated from library school, but she’s the one staying on. The other is retiring. Oh, and because of cutbacks, they’re eliminating the third position altogether and redistributing work throughout the library. The one staying had the most seniority, of course.
One question is, are these isolated incidents? I am not brazen enough to claim my gossip is a national trend in the making. (Okay, I am usually that brazen, but I’m feeling calm and generous today.)
There are some younger librarians who resent their elders and just want them to move out of the way thinking that will create a job for them. The job isn’t necessarily going to be replaced, so that’s a dim hope. For libraries, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of competent older librarians, and some who are actually new librarians because they came to librarianship from another career.
The finer distinction is between librarians who are good and those who are not, and one problem for libraries is that there’s very little incentive for incompetent librarians to retire if they don’t have to.
I haven’t heard of libraries offering any "golden parachutes," so money won’t be an incentive. And libraries can’t always just decide who goes and stays. Lots of librarians in colleges and universities have tenure of some kind (which for obvious reasons is concentrated in the older librarians), and lots of public librarians have civil service or unionization that protect librarians based on seniority. Thus, if cutbacks have to be made, the people getting cut aren’t the old duffers who shuffle around the library sipping tea and reading copies of LJ left lying in the staff lounge in the 1970s. They’re going to be the newer (if not younger) librarians who don’t have tenure or seniority.
The librarians who don’t do much have the most incentive to stay until they die at their desks after consuming their mid-morning box of doughnut holes. Why leave a good thing? The good librarians are finally going to be able to relax from their busy work lives and go do something pleasant and relaxing in their golden years. But for a lot of librarians, there’s nothing more pleasant than nibbling chocolate and gossiping all day, so why not get paid to do it?
If the good librarians retire and few are being replaced, it’ll be much worse for libraries than the younger librarians not getting jobs. If the situation gets bad enough, patrons would eventually find they are entering the Library of the Living Dead.