June 18, 2018

Turning “Us” vs. “Them” Into Just “Us” | Not Dead Yet

Once upon a time, I figured I’d be retired by now. And then The Great Recession scotched that idea. These days there are lots of us still in libraries at a time we thought we’d be on a beach somewhere. Didn’t happen. The flip side of that is that a lot of folks entered library school with the understanding that there was a looming scarcity of librarians, meaning an abundance of jobs. Well, that didn’t happen, either. The combination of those two realities can create frustration and friction among us.

But I believe we’re all in this together. Rather than adopting an “us” versus “them” mindset, I hope we can embrace the idea that we can complement and support each other and help each other learn, wherever we are on the library-career continuum.

So I pitched this column to my editors at LJ, as a resource that would target those of us still out here, “Not Dead Yet”—still working, creating, thinking, solving, collaborating, serving, teaching, learning, and doing—and open to change.

The point at which I stop learning is the point at which I need to retire. Until then, I plan to go on learning and trying new things. So far I think I’ve reinvented myself nine or ten times in my career, and frankly, I enjoy that. It’s one of the things that attracted me to librarianship in the first place: variety. So many subjects, so many questions, so much different research, and I need to learn enough and know enough to be able to point folks in the right direction to find answers to their questions. I loved that about being a reference librarian the first time I served on a reference desk, and I love it still. And I have many colleagues here at Harvard who are just the same. One dear colleague who retired this past June spent the previous year learning swathes of new online resources and software programs, and digging deeply into issues in a new field of librarianship. She’s spending the beginning of her retirement digging even more deeply into these issues, and developing web resources to further scholarship in the field. She’s as intellectually curious and fired from within as ever, and I know we’ll all hear much more from her in the profession.

I’m writing this new column with newer librarians in mind, too. If I can provide anything that will help you get a job, understand a work situation, or advance in your career, that will mean the column is accomplishing my goal: to turn “us versus them” into just “us.” I remember that when I graduated from SUNY Albany School of Library and Information Science (as it was called then), there were no jobs to be had. None. Well, just a few, anyway. And I had to piece together a living from part-time work. It was disappointing, frustrating, and disheartening. I remember how it felt, and I keep that memory uppermost in my mind when I’m talking with folks who are in library school now, or who are looking for their first job. You are our future! I want to help you get the job, succeed, and have a long career in libraries that you love. And I want to have you as my colleagues, helping me continue to learn (and maybe listening to a few of my stories along the way, because I do believe I have some things to offer to new kids on the block).

I’ve been doing my E-Views blog for quite a while now, and, although new electronic products continue to come out, they’re not burgeoning at such a rate that I can really maintain a timely and informative blog on them. (And frankly, having been using and reviewing library e-products since 1985, it’s my belief that a lot of library technology reached its effectiveness zenith around the year 2000, and some of it has gone downhill since). Instead, I’ll tackle the generation gap every two weeks here at http://lj.libraryjournal.com/category/opinion/not-dead-yet/. I hope you’ll join me.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. This is a great beginning, Cheryl! Those of us who have always been curious and always wanted to keep learning still have a lot to give.

    Perhaps you can address the topic of why directors etc. keep cutting hours and benefits for librarians while saying “You are our future!”. Sounds kind of like short-term thinking to me . . .

    • Hey fellow-Joneser,
      EXCELLENT point! and one I plan to address soon in an upcoming “Not Dead Yet.” Short-term thinking or no thinking? We’ll discuss.
      Thanks for commenting, and I hope you’ll come back.

  2. I’m a newbie–2008 RU MLIS grad, first full-time gig started this past June. As you say–several part-time jobs kept me going for those first few years.

    I think most experienced librarians are awesome and teach those of us with less experience a great deal. I owe a great to those who came before me and shared–they are all wonderful, especially Gail, Candy, Jane, and Catherine to name a few.

    Some however think that they have no need to learn how to download an audiobook or an e-book. There is a regular push it off on the young person that happens (including telling a patron that they needed to speak to Cynthia about audio downloads and I wouldn’t be in for the next four days…this at a five-star library). There is no excuse for that–ever. The patron deserves your help and if you don’t know how, say let’s learn together and do just that. I didn’t learn to download in library school, I learned it by checking out books and making it work…

    • Hi Cynthia,
      Not a good situation when any librarian stops learning; it kinda defines the profession that we’re like sharks and have to move forward in the water or we’ll belly up. That said, any chance you can start a learning event in your library, specifically for trading library knowledge and skills? If it’s a two-way street, it may be less intimidating for folks on both sides of the career spectrum to offer something up while getting lots in return. Just a thought. And yes, I agree that the patron deserves your help — and your phrase “let’s learn together and do just that” should be the new library mantra IMHO. IOW, I like the way you think, Cynthia — another reason I respect “newbies” as you self-identify. Please keep reading and commenting! and thanks a bunch,

    • Cynthia, I wonder what kind of training your coworkers (and you) received. I’m of the generations which didn’t grow up with all of this technology and most of it isn’t quite-yet-intuitive. Cheryl makes an EXCELLENT point – perhaps you can teach them to fish, if you pardon my using another cliche. Of course, getting an ipad at work wouldn’t hurt either, but that’s not going to happen . . . (nor will a raise to buy one).

  3. Even in the late ’80s when I started library school the conventional wisdom was that people in their ’50s and ’60s at that time were going to be retiring. When I graduated in 1989 and started jobhunting, I found that was not the case. The job market was always tight, but I kept hearing about baby boomers retiring (I was several years younger than that age group). It still hasn’t happened, but now even when people do retire their positions are often not filled.

    There are fewer and fewer jobs, yet library schools keep pumping MLS graduates out. I worked for 20 years as a professional librarian and have been unemployed since 2010. The only “nibble” I have had of a job offer is as as part-time on-call librarian — with low pay and no benefits.

    • I hear you, Marina, and deplore the situation, especially since we’re needed more than ever in the frankly bewildering research environment that currently exists. Unfortunately the solution to the problem you describe is that very good librarians have left the field in order to keep going financially. This has never been a particularly profitable profession (if anyone’s in it for the money they’ve been grossly misinformed, as was Rick in Casablanca) but decent pay and benefits seem like not so much to ask for after spending at least 5 years in college and grad school learning a profession.
      My belief is that librarian value will rise again — unfortunately, I’m afraid that first a generation or so of researchers may muddle through web-only use before real research comes back into vogue. And that means a generation or so of mediocre research. Since academic institutions are concerned about value so much these days, sooner or later somebody is going to figure out that dollar for dollar, libraries and librarians are one of the best values around in terms of bang for your buck. I’m hoping institutional administrators figure this out before we’ve all gone into real estate or online commerce just to make ends meet.
      Oops — kinda a long reply, for which apologies — but I do hear and understand what you’re saying, and am in sympathy with it.

  4. BTW — in the interest of learning, I should note that Joneser, above, taught me a new meaning of Jonesing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Jones) — and made me realize I’m a Gen Jones. I’m spreading the word around as fast as I can.
    Thanks, Joneser!

    • You’re welcome. I never felt that I totally fit the “baby boomer” label, and when I was told about this cohort the lightbulb went off. We late baby boomers started right after the baby boomers ballooned the profession, so they had 20 years to go before retirement. Somehow we never got the “goodies” – Gen X came right along and everyone started swooning over them.

  5. When I applied for library school, in the mid-80s, I wrote my application essay on how I felt about books — the physical objects, ink on paper, glue-bound or sewn, covers of leather or cardboard or cheap card stock.

    I doubt very much that any reputable school would accept such an essay today!

    And I’m not sure I would *want* to start as a new librarian today. When I began, it was all about CONNECTION — hooking readers up with the stories they would love, mediating the obstacles between enquirers and the information they needed.

    Now it seems that being a librarian is all about MARKETING — No, trust us, we’re faster than Google! Come here, and make your e-readers even more powerful! Bring your kids, we’re more fun than Angry Birds! Visit us, click on us, “like” us, “tweet” us…

    I don’t know. If we really have to put so much of our energy into trying to prove that we’re still relevant and necessary, maybe we *aren’t* anymore.

    If blacksmiths kept “re-inventing” their profession the way we have, by now they’d be space shuttle engineers. At what point have we “re-invented” ourselves so much that the word “librarian” is meaningless?

    • Do you remember 5-6 years ago when all of the “visionaries” said that the library as a “place” was dead? Now we are supposed to increase open hours while staff is cut because it is so important that we be open . . .

      Visionaries are too busy having visions . . .

    • Hey Leslie K.,
      I think we may be seeing the end of “libraries being obsolete,” in articles like this one (a Harvard colleague brought this to my attention on a local list): “Still Here”: A funny thing happened on the way to its predicted obsolescence. The library became more popular than ever.
      By Mark Lamster
      Posted July 20, 2012 at MetropolisMag.com; http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20120720/still-here.
      Pundits pun, visionaries have visions, real people keep using libraries. My suggestion to you and other physical book lovers (this includes me) is: hang on — the end is not in sight.
      Thanks for writing, and hope you keep writing and commenting!
      Best wishes,

    • Hey again Leslie K., wanted to let you know I just got an e-mail from a friend who teaches in a library school who went out of her way, with other colleagues, to support admitting students who love to read physical books — and admit to doing so. Perhaps the e-reading revolution is coming full-circle, and multiple formats will be maintained despite predictions that physical book publishing is done [I really think a nationwide reading (or re-reading) of Fahrenheit 451 would be a good thing right about now].

      So sounds like you’d be welcomed at that library school (and it’s in this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s Top Ten List of Library and Information Schools; it’s actually in the top five). I hope this is more reason for hanging in there.

    • Hey Cheryl, I was graduated long long ago from one of the top 5 – which school are you talking about?

  6. As a librarian athe still young age of 62, I really enjoyed your column. I “retired” from academia 3 months ago and rebooted my career into special libraries. I now work as a contract librarian for the US Air Force Research Labs Technical Library in Rome, NY. I feel reenergized and am excited to go to work every day. I had not felt that way for at least two or three years.

    • Bill, you give me renewed hope!
      AND — I (and I suspect many others) would LOVE to hear how you went about rebooting your career. The concept of “contract librarian” is new to me, and I’d love to hear more about it. Are you willing to tell us?
      Thanks for writing, and I am thrilled to hear you’re excited to go to work every day. You really do inspire me.

    • I actually work for a company that contracts to provide librarian and two library techs to the tech library in Rome, NY. There is one librarian who is a civilian Air Force librarian. Great group of people. My job at my previous employer was going away. I was the only librarian without tenure and had many disagreements with my boss on professional issues. I took retirement to leave on a positive note. I retired on a Friday and started my new job the next Monday. I took a cut in pay but I love the job even though it is a long commute. I am now using every library skill I have learned over my 25 + years of professional librarianship.

  7. Sherry Rhodes says:

    Joneser, I can relate to what you’re saying. Even though the Census Bureau considers me to be one of the last Baby Boomers, I too never felt like I was a Boomer. Looking at the dates bracketing Generation Jones, I do fall into that cohort. But if you read Strauss & Howe’s Generations, they make a strong case for the first cohorts of Gen X, or as they call it, 13ers, to have been born in 1961, not 1965. In any case, though, it’s not Gen X that got swooned over; it’s Gen Y, or the Millennials, which are generally considered to have started being born in 1982.

    • I have to admit that I’m happy to have the “Gen Jones” item to share at holiday parties this year. Library talk is not necessarily a common thread at these parties, but generational mores definitely are, and thanks to Joneser I have something to add to the conversation that I suspect other party-goers may not have encountered before. Yet another frisson of pleasure that being a librarian brings!

    • Cheryl, I guess I thought I was the only one who experienced frissons while basically being a smartypants. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone . . . and now I have a more intriguing way of explaining it. I’m visioning a book title here . . .

      The Librarian’s Pleasure Frisson – hmmmm . . .

  8. As a young librarian (graduated 2008) with a fair amount of experience in libraries (since 2001) one of my great frustrations in the current job market is actually the number of Directors and other managers retiring! Actually, my frustration lies in the fact that those seem to be the majority of positions open currently, but the people looking for jobs do not have the experience they require. It’s hard to get that experience because not all managers and other experienced librarians are quite as open about sharing their knowledge and collaborating as you are. They are scared we’re going to some how run them out of their jobs and don’t always give us the opportunity to develop skills to make us good managers, etc. Personally, I’d like to “move up” in my career. However, positions require “X years of supervisory or management experience.” Well, I don’t have any so I don’t usually get an interview. Personally, I think management is the place for me. But how do you get in management without having been in management? You need more experienced professionals to help you out by offering opportunities to supervise, etc. Same thing goes for wanting to change ares of expertise. It’s really hard for a children’s librarian to go into academia, for example. We “newbs” rely on supervisor and other experienced librarians to help us out so we can get to where they are someday.
    So while that’s an excessively verbose way to arrive to this conclusion… I agree that we are all in this together! Let’s help each other out. I’ll teach you all my tech tricks if you teach me how to manage, etc., etc.

    • I hear you, Kendra, and you’ve touched on a large number of issues in which I’m very interested. In fact, I’m planning to address some of them in the column after next — on library management and administration — so I hope you’ll stay tuned and keep reading and commenting.
      Thanks very much for writing,

    • And those same directors and managers are busy cutting the full-time entry level and above positions at their libraries so that no new people can get a job, and “flattening” and “centralizing” the organization so that there is nowhere to go to gain more experience if you ever do get in. Talk about short-term, shoot-the-profession-in-the-foot thinking.

      Oh I am looking forward to the next columns – write faster, Cheryl!!

  9. Thank you, Cheryl, for your responses. I totally agree with what Sherry Rhodes, Joneser, and Lesley K. wrote.

  10. Kendra’s comments give me hope that someone is interested in management. A very subjective assessment of who is interested in what makes me conclude that management is not a popular career track because so much of it requires skills and responsibilities that are not strong components of MLIS programs. To that I might add that the skills are not those that avidly pursued by those who want to be librarians. Working with city/county/local government, negotiating budgets, being a strong and visible advocate for libraries in their community and for their importance to the common weal, civic engagement, spending large chunks of times on matters that “they don’t teach you in library school” is the norm. Personally, I enjoy it more than any facet of librarianship I previously engaged in, but the skills necessary to perform the job well were a very small part of my academic training.

    • Very well said, Bob, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The combination of the lack of training with the ways in which top administrators and managers are often anoint… appointed in libraries augurs ill for our institutions. I’m planning to discuss a couple of these and related issues in the Not Dead Yet column that will appear here Oct. 4th.

      Thanks very much for writing, and I hope you’ll continue to read NDY and comment.

    • Bob, so many of the library management jobs these days (those that are left) are “branch manager” jobs. Yes, you may be learning some management skills, but sometimes there is no “there” there. Would that librarians be able to specialize more, or to actually learn some “hard” budgeting and advocacy skills.

  11. Faydene Gillings-Grant says:

    Here I am on the other side of the pond thinking…”Woe is me”! and woe to all my colleagues here in the UK. It is much the same argument here as public libraries close, other sector libraries downscale and professionals are no longer required to oversee libraries. The requirement now if you do stay in the mix (I escaped!) is that it is all about budgeting, cost cutting, HR/trade union, fund-raising, IT securing and maintaining old buildings. If you are lucky and have a forward-thinking local authority, then it is likely that a librarian will run the gauntlet of shared management of services, sometimes distant to the profession but a reasonable ask in the service offer (i.e. leisure, culture & play). But the idea of embracing technology to re-energise the reading & learning agenda for our customers is lost here, as the use of libraries plummet. The limited returns in our investment of time, energy and the scarce – money, feeds the need to reduce access hours (manned by professionals) which leads to decision-makers to question the need for a Librarian (as we know it) and a opt for a ‘librarian’ (someone who works in a library) who will work for less for the prestige of being in charge. The result is, all transferable skills acquired over the years (Event Planning; Project Management; Performance Management; Public Speaking; Customer Relationship (all ages); IT; Research & Report Writing; Bid-Writing etc) still does not prepare us (Librarians) for life after libraries because perhaps of the stigma attached to our business – us, custodians of books. I am still unemployable – having completed a B.Sc (Geology); DipLIS; MBA (HR) and numerous Certificate Training – perhaps because I have spent too many years in libraries – and did not escaping sooner!

    • Hi Faydene,
      I’m sorry to hear some of the things you write (“public libraries close, other sector libraries downscale and professionals are no longer required to oversee libraries” and “the use of libraries plummet”), some of which sounds very familiar, some of which is different on this side of the pond, for instance: libraries are actually getting used here more than ever, if not funded better. The saddest thing you write for me is: “I am still unemployable… perhaps because I have spent too many years in libraries – and did not escaping sooner!” The idea that library experience may count against someone trying to find work as a manager is very daunting, indeed. I’m wondering if we need to develop a new, “transferable” language for library administration and management, along with the very necessary training library managers and administrators need to get to be able to oversee libraries today and tomorrow? Much of the tension that ensues, IMHO, comes from the fact that libraries may need to operate in some business-like fashions, but we are not businesses — we’re essentially educational operations. I’m wondering — have you been trying to get jobs in education, or government, or the private sector? I would hope you’d have good chances within education — but has that not been the case?
      My best wishes to you for success in future, and thanks for contributing a “cross the pond” viewpoint to this discussion!

  12. As someone who has managed a variety of academic libraries and large departments within academic libraries since 1997, I can honestly say that I have never gotten any training, of any kind, in management, budgeting, HR, or anything else that I do all day, every day. It’s all been sink-or-swim, seat-of-the-pants … I am trying very hard to NOT replicate that with current colleagues, and I’ve been working with other senior colleagues to develop mentoring programs for both junior and mid-level/prospective senior management colleagues, so that when the time comes, there will be people to replace the senior managers. Succession planning is vital. One senior manager of mine just retired, and told me that he didn’t think his next-in-command right-hand person was qualified to take over – I think that’s a dreadful failure of mentorship and succession-planning on his part. I don’t happen to agree with him either, but that’s another matter. We all have a responsibility to train the next generation of managers.

    • Rosa, I’m not that surprised by what you wrote, since it sounds similar to the experiences of many of the library managers with whom I’ve worked. The issue of training (or rather, the lack of it) to be a library manager / administrator is a problem that’s plagued our profession for a long time, and it’s sad that it continues to be such a problem even now. Your point about succession planning is a good one — and I’m wondering if the “us” versus “them” conflict has an effect on whether or not such succession planning is done (since it’s my belief that the “us” versus “them” dynamic comes into play in many different areas of libraries. More on that in an upcoming column).
      Thanks for contributing to this discussion, and I’d be very interested to hear how the mentoring in your library goes in the future!.

  13. Mary Lou McMillan says:

    Cheryl you speak my language. I too am working longer than I expected and believe I am still able to learn and contribute to the changing workplace that is our public library. Young professionals have an uphill climb and are taking entry level positions in order to gain experience. I am able to see their development and I also learn a lot from them. Together we can create a dynamic workforce.

    • Mary Lou, I think you put your finger squarely on the point with that last statement: “Together we can create a dynamic workforce.” It takes experience plus enthusiasm with learning on both sides to have a truly dynamic library environment. Remove either from the equation and you get, well, something of a lesser quality.
      Thanks for writing!
      Best wishes,