The Age of Librarians

For some reason I can’t fathom, a lot of librarians seem to resent or resist the young, and by young I mean anyone under 50. Recently I heard of a criticism of a candidate for a high level library job at another university. The criticism? She’s 35. That was it. So a person is old enough to be the President of the United States, but much too young to be the head of a library department. The thing is, I’ve heard or read this sort of thing often. There’s a lot of concern about the future of library leadership these days. Steven Bell blogs frequently about it at ACRLog, the ALA has talked of a crisis of library leadership, and Walt Crawford is working on the Palinet Leadership Network. It’s just possible that part of the crisis is a resistance to talent not accompanied by decades of experience. In my experience, those two things are not necessarily related.

It’s true that the absolute worst supervisor I ever saw was relatively young (30 at the time). She destroyed a good library department by driving off all the librarians. However, her incompetence stemmed from her stupidity, ignorance, and malignancy, not her age. I think we can all agree that stupidity, ignorance, and malignancy are hardly confined to the young. On the other hand, we can also probably think of plenty of examples of experienced librarians over fifty, including some in leadership positions, who are just terrible. My point is not to promote the young or deride the old, but merely to show that talent and age/experience aren’t necessarily connected.

The few times I’ve been considered youngish in libraries have seemed odd to me, since I didn’t even become a librarian until I was 30. I was 32 when I started this job, and one day a few months into the job someone (good naturedly and somewhat in jest) said I was just a baby, presumably in comparison to most of my colleagues. Since this was purely an age comment, and not a response to any ongoing mewling or puking, I didn’t think it was meant condescendingly, so I let it pass, but I still thought it bizarre. I’ve been driving legally and working part or full time since the day I turned 15. By 32, I’d worked as a cook, bartender, maintenance worker, landscaper, teacher, bookstore manager, library clerk, and professional librarian. I had a wife of eight years, a child of two, a few college degrees, and my second professional librarian job. I’d live in six different states in three different regions of the country. And both my parents were dead, so there was no running home to the folks. I’m not sure when one becomes an adult in this society, since the period of childhood seems always in flux, but I can say there’s a point after which calling someone a baby is naive and insulting, as if age itself were indicative of ability and experience relevant to librarianship only if the experience is performing the same job in a library for 25 years.

Perhaps it’s the academic environment. Academia in general is obsessed with credentials, expecting PhDs for jobs that have little need for one. Arguments about one of the regrettable trends in academia–the permanent adjunct without tenure–often brings this obsession to light in an odd way. One of the occasional complaints is that universities hire people to teach first year writing classes without (gasp!) PhDs. The lament about the lack of job security and academic freedom for professors is compelling, but I don’t see why anyone would need a PhD to teach freshman writing. The rise of the necessity of the PhD for (especially lower level) undergraduate teaching, rather than scholarly research, seems one of the odder academic narratives of the twentieth century. Likewise I wonder about college libraries that require their director to have a PhD. Sure, it might be nice, but a requirement? In the days when library directors were scholars first and library directors second, it was a natural outcome of the process, but that era ended decades ago, and now I’m sure we all know of plenty, perhaps even a majority, of successful directors of even large research libraries without a PhD.

I’m not sure why age and credentials are treated with such awe, because they’re certainly not in other parts of society. As with so many other oddities, it might have something to do with the lack of a profit motive. Businesses usually want to make a profit, so they’re interested in what workers can do rather than in their degrees or age. I only know two working adults around my age who didn’t go to college, and both of them are successful in business and make a lot more money than I do (one of them did recently go back to college part time and complete a degree, but he was already making a lot more than me before he went back). They’re happy and adjusted and very smart and talented, and both of them were making their marks before age thirty and without college degrees. Librarianship makes this sort of success story very difficult, even if one has a library degree.

I hesitated to address this topic, for all sorts of reasons. For one, I’ve seen discussions of topics like this degenerate into a rant fest dividing along generational lines where younger librarians rant about those dried up baby-boomers and how they should retire already and let things change and give the young folks a chance, and the older librarians either condescending to the younger ones or more naturally wondering, what the heck did I ever do to deserve this sort of criticism? Since when is getting old a crime? Such generational generalizing is a waste of time. There are good and bad librarians of every age. That great librarian nearing retirement was probably a great librarian (at least in potentio) at age 25, and that dull-witted and incompetent 25-year-old librarian will most likely still be dull-witted and incompetent at 60. I’ve always noticed librarians both younger and older who impressed the hell out of me, and also ones that have made me wonder how they ever even made it through library school, and that’s saying something.

The biggest reason I almost didn’t write is the possibility that this post will seem like sour grapes, so I want to address this at length. After all, while I don’t feel young, at 38 I’m probably viewed that way by a lot of librarians. There are probably relatively few librarians out there more than 10 years younger than I am, but there’s a huge cohort about 20 years older. Am I one of the “young” upstarts who wants to move up “fast”? I will admit there was a time early in my career when “library director” seemed like a worthy goal, but now, to be honest, I’m not so sure. Partly it’s because I actually like my work, and I’m pretty good at it, and it gives me the opportunity to do other things I like, such as writing and teaching. Despite my “youth,” it took me a very long time to find a place in the working world that I felt comfortable with, and that allowed me to contribute whatever talents I have to the institution while still rewarding me adequately and allowing me sufficient autonomy and control over my work. It has been clear since my JROTC class in the ninth grade that I don’t react well to excessive regimentation and hierarchy. Nobody likes being ordered around, I suppose, but I really don’t like it, and I worked hard to find a position that gave me the autonomy, freedom, and support to do my job as I thought it should be done, and rewarded intelligence, initiative, experimentation, creativity, and results rather than rule-following and clock-punching and brown-nosing. Plus I have tenure! (Or tenure lite, at least.) Moving to any administrative job would take me away from a lot of what I like about my work while burdening me with a lot of things I don’t think I would like.

At the moment at least, and this could always change, I can’t imagine why I would leave the perfect library job, as imperfect as it can be sometimes, for much else. I have a great library job with good pay and benefits, and the temptation to move up one step to, for example, head of reference probably wouldn’t make sense for me just for financial reasons. There are also personal reasons. The fact that my wife has a great job that she likes a lot makes relocating difficult as well. Both spouses in a professional couple having great jobs they like is a rare enough situation to preserve, especially with the relatively paltry financial incentives librarians usually have for moving just one step up the ladder. (It’s not like we’re talking doubling salaries with big signing bonuses or anything.)

There are also professional concerns. For example, for various reasons I don’t want to mention I don’t want to work at a tenure-track library where the librarians have faculty status (at least coming in without tenure), and it’s not because I can’t write or publish. (I can write and publish, I just choose not to. So there.) Unfortunately, this leaves out some libraries I’d like to work at and places I’d like to live, including my grad school and library school alma mater UIUC–which I have a great affection for and still miss sometimes–and many other great state university libraries. On the other hand, state universities are more dependent on annual legislative budgets than I think is good for library collections and services. (In the debate over increasing tuition and how much private universities spend of their endowments, I’m troubled that the driving force seems to be resentment against elite universities rather than resentment that states don’t make their public colleges and universities a top priority.) Good research libraries require a steady supply of money, and can’t be left to the whimsy of politicians.

There may come a day when I want to move up or move on, and I’m occasionally tempted by an especially attractive job ad and even occasionally apply, but I’ve reached the pleasurable professional position where for the foreseeable future even the attractive libraries would probably have to actively recruit me for anything higher up, and in all honesty I don’t know why any of them would. I certainly have various strengths and talents and I try to do a good job, but I hardly think that people look at me and say, “now THAT’S library leadership material! Let’s make THAT guy our AUL!” And this despite my height and good hair. After all that disclosure, it should be clear that I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for any so-called advancement, though if the opportunity were right I wouldn’t refuse it.

So why do I even bring this up? As if often the case with my writing here, it’s because of something I think I notice but don’t understand. Is it the case that a lot of librarians are resistant to giving leadership positions to librarians that can be considered young only in relation to a relatively aged cohort? If so, is this just the natural state of humankind, or is there something about libraries that makes this so? Could this be part of the so-called crisis of library leadership? There are plenty of librarians, but do the powers that be think their youth and lack of similar library experience mean they can’t do a good job? Or could it be that librarians in general are risk averse, especially when it comes to something like this?

I want to reiterate that I’m not criticizing older generations of librarians or calling for some sort of revolution. As should be clear to those who read the blog, I like young people, especially our college students. I never make any attempt to seem cool or young or hip, but I like students and generally get along well with them, mostly because I treat them as the intelligent adults they usually are rather than trying to be one of them. However, I don’t worship youth, and I see it as part of the my job as a teacher and librarian to help acculturate the students, to bring them into the tradition of the best that has been thought and said to prepare them for the struggle to make the world as good as it can be. I also don’t resent the past or those older than me. I find the “This is the way we’ve always done it” argument ludicrous, but because it’s stupid, not because someone a generation older than me said it. The traditions we pass on need to be justified, certainly. Just because we’ve done things this way means nothing, as if it were some sort of crime that we should know more about something than our ancestors.

However, I also resist the temptation to eliminate that which has gone before merely because it’s old. Libraries and librarians have done great things in the past and have built up the sometimes magnificent libraries some of us enjoy working in today, and it does seem to me that younger librarians (and sometimes even older librarians) are sometimes willing to abandon traditions without understanding what they do. Institutions that have grown over decades or centuries have developed to serve various needs, and it can be the case that we don’t understand what need some practice served until we have eliminated the practice. Scholars today benefit enormously from the practices and decisions of librarians of the past, and those librarians of the past didn’t even know how to make a wiki, the poor things. You wouldn’t know it to talk to me, but I’m from the south, and one of my favorite quotes is from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Quoted recently, you might remember, by a remarkable and youngish politician challenging the presumption that age and specific experience is more important than talent and ability.) If you’re a fellow southerner, you probably feel the resonance of that line, but though I haven’t lived in the south for sixteen years, I feel the same way every time I stand in the stacks of a research library.

So I’m not saying, hey, old people, move out of the way because the young ‘uns know everything and are better than you. I am, however, saying that I have noticed on many occasions that younger librarians are resented or resisted merely because of their age, and I consider this as serious a loss for libraries as the disappearance of a useful and valuable tradition merely because it’s misunderstood.

(P.S. I think I let this blog post get away from me, which segues well into my next blog post where I discuss why I don’t think I do this blogging thing very well.)

2 thoughts on “The Age of Librarians

  1. I think that it can be true that some libraries (and some librarians) are quite resistant to the notion of giving leadership positions to the young – or those that are seen to be young. I’m quite startled to hear staff at MPOW (largish public library) complain that a certain manager is “too young to manage”! Which is a load of BS…
    However, I have worked at places where this definitely wasn’t the case. At a former place of work I was the youngest person there by quite a bit and I was the assistant director. I was nervous about being so young at first (to be honest) but I never had any problems with either the staff or with people at other libraries when I sat on multi-library committees (where I and a few others were also much younger than everyone else).

  2. First of all, excellent reflections and writing from one “so young” :o)
    Okay, I’ve been an academic librarian since God was born. Almost seems that way. I’m now almost 54, a librarian since 1983 (hmm, 27 years!) at three different schools. I too am very happy being a librarian, not a library administrator. Some assumed that would be my path, but, well, I made other choices, mainly to remain a librarian. Or no school courted me enough. This is important and goes to the quality of life axiom: One needs to like and respect the colleagues one is sitting with at meetings. Be careful what one wishes for – running a library is fundamentally administrative. Does one aspire to do that? Some do and some are good administrators, but most are abysmal as administrators; not trained or credentialed for it. The Peter Principle still pertains.
    So let’s see, blogs and wikis and bears, oh my!
    Staying current in our profession is the best defense against irrelevance.
    Thanks again for your posting.

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