February 17, 2018

Helping New Librarians by Sticking with It | Not Dead Yet

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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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. I think this criticism is directed towards those who deliberately choose not to advance their skills. For example, today I found someone who still uses Netscape as a browser. Forward-thinking people like you are not the problem.

    • Thanks, Gabby, for writing and making the distinction between those who do try to keep up to date with their knowledge and skills and those who don’t. I worry about folks being tarred with a single brush just because of their “seasonedness” (yep, I just made that word up) and not viewed through the reality of what they bring to the job, no matter what their age.

      Meanwhile, I have to admit I didn’t realize Netscape was still even around…. ;)
      Thanks again for your comment,

  2. I started library school with a Smith Corona typewriter. Our “state of the art” computer lab had two Apple IIe computers. Online retrieval was in its infancy; libraries were just starting to investigate OPACs. You and I have lived through a LOT of technological change, and we keep on doing it.

    • Thanks for writing, Joneser. There has been a lot of technological change in the profession over a relatively short space of time, so much of it making research better and easier and our working lives smarter and faster. Frankly, one of the reasons I like to explore new technologies is to sort the wheat from the chaff (and having the chance to review new e-resources brings new discoveries frequently), recognizing that there are useful new technologies and not-so-useful ones. For instance, we recently implemented LibAnalytics at our public desks, and I’m finding it to be the best thing to come along since sliced bread and LibGuides! And if we hadn’t tried it, we wouldn’t know just how good it is.

      New technologies that enrich the research environment and that keep me on my toes? Bring ’em on! I love learning, and I suspect I’m not alone in that, no matter what anyone’s age is.
      Thanks again for writing,

  3. Hi Cheryl. My recent column was intended to encourage academic librarians of a certain age to start thinking about retirement because it’s a good idea to plan ahead. What’s happening with our faculty – where so many are staying much later than was ever anticipated and it is now creating real dilemma for new PhDs who are not able to get into tenure track positions – was an inspiration to consider the same situation in our academic libraries. Admittedly its a complex issue and there are other reasons (e.g, declines in some program areas, the elimination of positions, etc). but I think everyone in higher education can realistically say they know of departments that would benefit from some retirements. I was impressed by a faculty member who is taking on the responsibility to move on for all the right reasons. You can do all you want to help bring people into this profession, to help them grow, to find good professional association opportunities for them – that’s all good and I’ve written about that before too (“giving-back librarianship” – do a search on “giveback librarianship” and read my ACRLog post from 2007) but ultimately I think – and we’ll probably have to agree to disagree here – that the best way to help them is to retire at a responsible age (not early) clear the path and give them their opportunity to take on the leadership so that they help the next generation evolve.

    BTW, thoughtfully planning and preparing to leave the profession somewhere between 68-70 – which is what I was suggesting – to me could hardly be described as “being kicked to the curb” or “age discrimination” – nor does it need to create an us vs them debate about age and ability. If you still have good skills, want to keep learning, have more to offer, etc – the opportunities are still out there for a post-library life – get into a new line of work, volunteer in your community, etc.To me, that’s all part of the preparation process.

    • Thanks for writing, StevenB. I wonder what a “responsible age” for retirement may be? there are some folks who are under so-called “retirement age” who, I think, would retire from the profession if they were acting responsibly, just as there are others I know who are well past so-called “retirement age” who are giving back to the profession, and doing wonderful jobs, daily. As with so many things, I think it depends upon the circumstances, the individual, and good judgment.
      Thanks again for writing,

    • What’s worse is when the directors and consultants tell the 50-something librarians that they can’t deal with change and when are they going to retire when they are doing the same thing over and over again themselves.

  4. I was in Germany this past summer presenting at a scholarly conference, and a Dutch professor told me that at a certain age – I think it was something quite young like 60 or maybe 65 – professors in the Netherlands are required by law to retire. I was somewhat struck. As a young scholar, I admit this sounds logical *to me*, but then again I’m sure the Netherlands also has an exhaustive safety net for all retirees as well!

    • Thanks for writing, WR. I think that what sounds logical at one point in a career may or may not change with “seasoning,” but your note about an exhaustive safety net for retirees in some places is, I think, a good one. Point well taken.
      Thanks again for writing,

  5. Max Macias says:

    Too bad I never had anyone like you around Cheryl. All I had were librarian bullies who tried to make me into a cataloger–which I am not.

    • Hi Max,
      Bullying is always a bad thing, so sad to hear that you were bullied. The really brilliant catalogers I have known were, I think, born, not made, so it would be especially inappropriate for anyone to try to make you someone you were not. Hope you have better experiences in libraries now!
      Thanks again for writing,

  6. I enjoyed reading your article and hearing your perspective..

  7. As a recent MLIS graduate, I have been lucky to meet a lot of librarians that have really helped with my professional development (though I’ve yet to find a job). While I certainly appreciate this, one thing that I’ve wondered about in my job search is how much this kind of mentoring continues throughout a librarian’s career, because almost all of the recent open positions in my community are for directors and higher-level positions, and apparently no one here is qualified to fill them. They are either filled by people from out-of-state or go unfilled for months at a time (and thus the lower-level positions never open up). I don’t want older librarians to retire simply to make room because I do value their expertise and advice, but I find myself wondering why some of them, who should have the years, experiences and qualifications to fill these positions, have not been mentored or groomed to move up the ladder.

    • This is a very interesting observation. I know a lot of public libraries have been “flattening” the organization and reducing the number of managers (including having one manager oversee several branches). A lot of the non-branch-mgr mid-level positions have been eliminated as well. So yes, there are fewer opportunities to gain the skills for higher positions. This is happening in my organization as well.

    • Great observation, MC! I wonder this myself, since making good use of current staff at all levels means looking around and recognizing potential and developing staff skills. It may be, though, that some folks don’t want to go into higher-level positions because they enjoy actually doing library work, rather than administrative work. And it’s my belief that administrative work is very hard to do well — I truly respect folks who take the time and effort to be good managers, because it involves so many skills, and knowledge, and patience.
      Thanks for writing, and best of luck in finding a job!

  8. Leigh Anne Focareta says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. Lately I’ve been feeling as if librarianship has become “Logan’s Run,” and there’s so much pressure, especially in professional publications to “step aside,” “let people have their turn,” etc. Well, quite frankly, I am not done with my turn yet. I have plenty to offer, and just because I’m past the cutoff point for Movers and Shakers doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly turned into a pumpkin.

    I’m currently mentoring a library school student who is eager to learn, actively taking steps to improve herself, etc. It makes me happy that someone feels I have any wisdom at all to offer, when I am still learning myself. Something I’ve noticed, though, is that the most valuable new members of the profession are too busy carving out their own space in librarianship to ask anyone else to give up theirs.

    • I agree with everything you say. I’m a late baby boomer, and in the 1980s libraries were starting to retrench after some boom years. Suddenly, there was NO movement at all. By the time things started to open up, the Gen Xers started being the “flavor of the month” and we were already too old. In the meantime, I’ve been developing my skills and my reputation and have a lot more to offer than a lot of “managers”. Not done learning yet!!

    • Kudos to you, Leigh Anne, for mentoring that library school student and for noting that you are still learning yourself. I do wish I didn’t see folks pushing in the literature for some librarians to step aside — it really does create a toxic “us” versus “them” environment. Doing what you’re doing instead — mentoring newcomers — is so much more positive and useful (and professional, IMHO).
      Thanks for writing!

      P.S. — is there a cutoff point for Movers and Shakers? I don’t know of one; I’m about to nominate a couple of people who are pretty well seasoned, but they’re moving and shaking in meaningful ways. I think folks can continue to move and shake well into their careers. C.

  9. The time to retire should not be a function of age, but of -well, tiredness. I have some colleagues, younger than I who really do need to get out of the way. But they need to get out of the way of the profession. They are the ones with the sour attitude and unpleasant demeanor. The ones who apply rules like weapons, and scare small children. Mentoring new librarians, and librarians new to our small organization is exciting. We learn together here and take every opportunity to question our decisions. We love the profession and the service we provide to the community. And three of the four librarians here are over 60. We aren’t going anywhere soon.

    • Hi Lisa R.,
      I agree with you – when someone gets to the point of being an ongoing misery to themselves and others they should find something else to do, and to be encouraged to do so — no matter what their age.
      And hearing about your and your colleagues’ love of providing service to your community makes me glad to hear you’re not going anywhere soon!
      Thanks for writing,

    • I agree with Lisa R., that some folks might need to retire, based on the “sour” attitude & I would say, lack of desire to change the “old” way of doing things. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve seen this. Yes, everyone (both new & experienced folks) have financial obligations to meet that may delay retirement. But I’d like to point out, “age discrimination” can cut both ways.

      I do hope in the future, more opportunities open up. I don’t want to give up on a profession I’m eager to be a part of and believe in b/c of a lack of positions available (which is a reality now). One way to help is mentoring; I’ve often wondered why more people don’t mentor others, so I’m glad you’ve done that, Cheryl, kudos!

    • Stephanie says:

      I agree that there are some who should move on. How is the best way to talk about this with them? I’ve wondered if resources on what else you can do with a library science degree will help them.