Grey Matter: The Ageing Librarian Workforce, with a Focus on Public and Academic Libraries in Australia and the United States

By Franks, Rachel | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Grey Matter: The Ageing Librarian Workforce, with a Focus on Public and Academic Libraries in Australia and the United States


Franks, Rachel, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


The issue of the ageing workforce within the field of librarianship is one that is deceptively straightforward. The workforce is ageing and will soon need to be replaced by a younger cohort of information professionals. The issue, however, harbours a range of complexities such as managing workplace change; recruitment as well as training and retraining; discrimination based on age and gender; conflict within a workforce with shifting demographics; and the provision of flexible working practices, especially for those older workers who have responsibilities such as the need to care for elderly parents. Another aspect is retention--attrition is not the exclusive prerogative of the retiree and an intake of younger librarians does not guarantee the meeting of workforce needs within libraries. This article looks at these issues and provides an overview of the debate around how serious the issue of an ageing workforce really is for library leaders.

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On the surface the issue of the ageing workforce within the field of librarianship--across a range of library types including academic, private, public, school, special and state libraries--is relatively straightforward. The workforce is ageing and will soon need to be replaced by a younger cohort of information professionals. A close examination of the literature on this topic reveals a much more complex series of issues that converge to generate a set of interwoven challenges including the managing of workplace change; recruitment as well as training and retraining; and conflict within a workforce with shifting demographics. Superimposed upon these issues is the debate about how serious the matter of a greying labour market really is. This article presents two library workforce profiles--for academic and public libraries--through a consolidation of some of the available data in Australia and the United States. In addition, it provides a synthesis of the research in this area--the bulk of which takes the form of census data, analyses of patterns in available statistical data, reviews of printed materials such as job advertisements, case studies, interviews and surveys. This review of the issue of 'grey matter' also identifies some of the gaps within the existing body of scholarship on ageing library workforces.

The literature on the ageing library workforce

The idea of an ageing workforce, and the associated issues of changing demographics in the workplace with a focus on pension planning, was first raised in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (1) The idea of needing to grapple with an ageing workforce in a library setting was not raised, however, until the mid 1980s and did not gain traction until the 1990s (2) with the emergence of a number of opinion pieces (3) in addition to articles based on annual salary surveys and demographic data (4) which continue to be produced. (5) There are also numerous books available that collate ideas on this issue. It is interesting to note that, less than two decades after the first publications on the topic appeared, there were those who felt too much time and effort had been dedicated to researching ageing workforces; reflected in calls to 'get over' the 'greying' profession hype. (6) This call has not been heeded. The amount of material available dealing with this very real (7) topic increases as the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, edge closer to retirement. (8)

The age profile of librarians in Australia and the United States

As noted, across a range of studies, the traditional cluster of library and information science professionals includes those who work in libraries, record management units and archives. (9) In Australia (10) there are about 12,300 librarians (not including library technicians or library assistants). Of that number 62 per cent are over 45 years of age yet only 3.4 per cent are under 25 years of age out of a total national workforce where only 38 per cent of all persons are over 45 years of age. …

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