Magazine article American Libraries

Retraining the Profession, or, over the Hill at 40

Magazine article American Libraries

Retraining the Profession, or, over the Hill at 40

Article excerpt


In a recent conversation with a colleague, the subject of older librarians came up. As an administrator he was concerned about growing resentment toward aging professionals with limited computer skills who were no longer seen as carrying their weight. As he spoke, I pictured an irritating curmudgeon waving his cane threateningly at a nearby PC, an elderly Luddite bypassed by the Information Age. Imagine my shock when, in the next sentence, he made it clear that the geriatric misfits he was referring to were in their 40s and 50s. Wounded to the core (was I a has-been?), I stifled my indignation and allowed him to continue.

Libraries have for some time been expected to do more with less. Some are facing budget cuts; others desperately need additional staff but must live with hiring freezes. Everyone is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the rapidly changing library, in which technological crises are the order of the day. Library administrators struggle valiantly to keep up with the ever-growing demands of automation, and they are feeling that some of their colleagues are not doing their fair share. As an example, my informant described senior subject specialists who, when pressed, ascend soap-boxes and deliver diatribes about the superiority of books over computers. Not only do they repeat ad infinitum the painfully overused cliche about taking a computer to bed, but they recall each and every computer gaffe going back to the punch-card era. These orations usually take place while a junior staff member is impatiently explaining the intricacies of the e-mail program.

Reality, good or bad

Every aspect of a modern library operation has become integrally linked to the computer. Good or bad, this is the reality of the late-20th century library. For an outsider like Nicholson Baker to rail about the tragic loss of the old card catalog may seem quaint. To have senior librarians equally hostile to modern technology is far more difficult to bear. Younger librarians naturally feel resentful when they must take time from their own work to change the printer ribbon for a senior colleague earning a substantially higher salary.

Most middle-aged librarians are, of course, not so openly hostile to computers. They have struggled valiantly with each new program and probably know more about the subject than many members of the general public. Although they have tried to be good team players, they have acquired only the basic skills necessary to carry out the routine duties in their job description. Since they possess no real expertise, they can't participate intelligently in decision making and so become peripheral to the evolution and development of the library. They feel left out and their own resentment and frustration grow.

What is happening in libraries is happening throughout society. The work force can be divided between the workers who went to school with computers and those who first encountered them after the completion of their formal education. We who went to library school before the arrival of the personal computer are the "baby boomer" generation or their older siblings. We are the fastest-growing age group in the work force. Between 1990 and 2005, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the number of workers age 55 and over is expected to grow by 38%.

In the library profession, we are also seeing the percentage of older librarians increase because of uncertainties about the future of the profession. Prestigious library-science graduate programs in the United States have closed their doors, and despite a general increase in enrollment, this has caused some recent college graduates to think twice about their long-term employment prospects.

Downsizing is also having an impact on libraries. When staff cuts must be made in the wake of a budget crisis, it is the recent graduates who are the first to leave, while librarians with more seniority are usually able to hold on to their jobs. …

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