55 Years Old with a 33 Year Library Career

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kathy Parsons, Associate Professor and Head, Stacks and Media Department at Iowa State University.

After reading the July 2012 Will’s World column “Your Mileage May Vary” in American Libraries, I found myself pondering library fatigue, retirement, and the value of my career. Was the librarian he described me? Did I need to retire? I sincerely hoped not but I saw a part of myself in his statements. Was library fatigue taking over? Could I rekindle the passion and joy for library work? But how do long-term librarians stay relevant, refreshed, and motivated? And if it was indeed time to make a career change what can I do with my experience? Were there others pondering the same questions?

I moderated a roundtable discussion at the 2013 National ACRL Conference in Indianapolis about issues facing long-term career librarians. I hoped that this session would be part counseling, part positive reinforcement, and part networking. It was just that and a bit more. While I used questions to guide the conversation, the answers were often elusive. Participants’ comments frequently redirected the conversation into areas I had not anticipated. The questions used were “How can librarians reinvent themselves and stay out of the rut? What other jobs can librarians do if they left the profession? How do you market your experience and skill sets for jobs outside of the library venue?”

During the discussions a couple of themes became evident. First, many of us expressed concerns about the reduction of staffing levels at our institutions. These reductions were the result of retirements, downsizing due to budget concerns, job changes, or even reallocation of staff. Coupled with this were the increasing expectations for new services while keeping the old. Rapid technological changes provided benefits but also added more stress. On top of this we needed to prove our value to our institution. Many of us sensed that we were just barely holding on; stretched thin with many responsibilities. We felt that we lost our passion and were unsure what to do. Some have thought about changing jobs but jobs are scarce. We talked about the shrinking job market and the unstable economy which was occurring at the same time of increased retirements of baby boomers. This was impacting long term employees wishing to change jobs and the younger colleague’s ability to move up. An article discussing the concept of “gray ceiling ” was mentioned that addressed the impact of delayed retirements has on younger workers.

Another theme that emerged was the generation gap. Some of us felt unappreciated by our younger (and sometimes new) colleagues especially if they were our supervisors. We thought we were seen as dinosaurs: not adaptable; technology deficient with little or with no social media skills including texting and blogging; slow learners living in the past. We realized that our chosen vocation has undergone tremendous change over the last decade or so but our longevity should count for something. We wondered if we needed to remind our younger colleagues of the advances our generation of librarians developed. Had we been so quiet about our “history” that the younger librarians do not know that we are the shoulders of change they are standing on? We developed online catalogs, integrated library management systems, and database searching; all these things and more paved the way for the support of open access, the use of social networking, cloud technology, and digitalization for library work. We wondered why the younger managers would not use our institutional memory as it could help prevent problems down the road. We recognized that there is a fine line between living in the past (refusing to adapt to changes) and sharing about the past (explanation of why something is the way it is). We, also, wondered if risk taking is hard as we age. Those of us who were middle managers felt especially conflicted by the generational gap as we may have both younger supervisees as well as younger supervisors. One person described us as being in the “bibliographic definition of hell.”

Woven throughout the conversation were ways of coping, recharging, and renewal. One way many of us “recharge” was attending conferences and workshops and volunteering with library associations. Universally we agreed that we returned to work after these activities motivated and refreshed but the feeling quickly disappeared as the normal workday intruded. We talked about the need to sustain and enlarge our professional contacts and network. Some found mentoring younger colleagues rewarding and in turn have been mentored by them. We brought to the relationship these strengths: navigating the ins and outs of serving our professional associations, assisting with research and publishing, and developing leadership skills. For us, the younger colleagues helped us hone our skills with social media and other technological advances. We concluded that this roundtable had great potential for a larger discussion and suggested that the topic be developed into a workshop or pre-conference at the 2015 National ACRL Conference in Portland. We need to continue this type of dialogue with ourselves and to include our younger colleagues. Most importantly, we walked away with new colleagues in our networks, not feeling so lost and alone, and later that night some found new dancing partners at the all-conference reception!

10 thoughts on “55 Years Old with a 33 Year Library Career”

  1. FYI – we no longer refer to the ACRL conferences as “national” – we had attendees from 19 different countries in Indy. ACRL dropped “national” in recognizing the global nature of the conference – hence – ACRL 2013. As a 58-year old with a 35 year career I’m definitely not feeling career fatigue or burnout. I think one of the ways to stay engaged and connected with the profession is to challenge yourself to keep up with all the change – and you do that by having a regular routine for keeping up. Rather than questioning what newer-to-the-profession colleagues think of us more senior folks, get connected with them, learn from them, and look for common ground where we learn from each other. When I read a post like this I always worry it will lead to more us versus them thinking in our profession so perhaps the next step is more dialogue on how we work together to advance the profession – no matter what age you are or how long this has been your profession.

  2. I would recommend avoiding telling younger colleagues that you were the generation that introduced online catalogs and library websites. I’ve experienced quite a bit of that in my institution and it doesn’t help build bridges. The natural response to “We built all this stuff!” is “And what have you contributed lately? We’ve had an online catalog for 20 years.” I’m young and I very much value the hard work my senior colleagues did to modernize the library, and yes, I value institutional memory. But I also think this post makes me less likely to work closely with my senior colleagues if they think I’m that much of a threat.

  3. Thanks for contributing this post, Kathy! Reading this I sometimes felt like I have one foot in both camps — I’m much closer to 55 than to a 33 year library career, but I’ve definitely experienced career fatigue before I came to librarianship (and am eager to avoid it in the future).

    I think that the changes in the information landscape and technologies will help keep librarianship interesting for me, as I anticipate continuing to learn as I become a more seasoned librarian. But I also realize that everyone has a different comfort level with change, especially technological change. I consider myself to be pretty tech-savvy and amenable to learning to use new tech tools, but I’m definitely having a “who moved my cheese?” moment right now as my university is making a huge change to the HR and course registration system. I know I’ll adapt to it, but that doesn’t stop my inner self from whining a bit about not having time to learn it right now.

    I keep reminding myself that communication is key, as you noted several times in your post. Whether we’re junior or senior — in age or experience (or both) — I think keeping the lines of communication open and making sure everyone’s voices are heard can help address some of these issues.

  4. I’m at the midway point- 40 with 16 years. When I first started at my current job and pitched my newest and coolest ideas, the “old timers” would say, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” This happened a lot and it was very frustrating. I usually got to try it anyway and sometimes they were right, sometimes I was.

    Now I’m the old timer, hearing ideas from newer colleagues, and getting that deja-vu feeling. I do my best to frame my experiences as lessons learned and encourage others to try again, but sometimes I do have to be the person who says no.

    I find this “old wine in new bottles” the most challenging part of being an experienced librarian.

  5. Junior Colleague’s comment is a great one. I’m probably among the “younger set” – though many of them make me feel like I’m ancient (got my MLS in 07).

    I also would be really turned off by hearing about how this or that generation created the catalog and databases and so on. Please don’t do this.

    The issue is not whether or not you will quickly and flawlessly learn how to craft a social media presence or figure out how to text me back when I need you, it’s your attitude about the process. If you release a mist of negativity about the whole thing, what am I left to think? I can only imagine that you don’t care for me or for the work that needs to get done. If you’re genuinely positive and interested, then I’m happy and you throw out the “I’m so helpful, I’m a team player” vibes. It’s common sense, I know, but I had to put it out there.

    Take two friends or moms or co-workers or whatever for instance – one texts her millennial counterpart, chats with them on facebook, hangs out on reddit, whatever. Even if she makes goofy mistakes all the time and even if the training wheels are slower to come off, she’s into it anyway, and she and her 20 or 30 something counterpart speak a common language and she comes off as being available and current. Great! The other digs in their heels – they’re available on their OWN terms ONLY. It doesn’t matter how helpful they are, or what they have to contribute or say or initiate – they’ve already sent a very clear message, with no middle way. There CAN be a middle way, and it starts with letting oneself become interested and curious again. I’ve heard so many boomers dismiss what the millennials in the office are up to, and dismiss them as entitled and green and all the rest – what’s the sad part is that the millennials are open to hearing whatever you want to say as long as it’s simply presented in a way that doesn’t contribute to their already overwhelmed burdens – things are hard enough for a 20 or 30 something (or anyone!). I’m rambling, and not making much sense, but I wanted to contribute something.

    TL;DR – Near-retirement folks: You are wanted and needed. But you can make it seem like you just plain don’t want to interact on any level but your own, and that’s not attractive. Show the millennials how curious and interested you really are – it’s a force multiplier.

  6. As an older librarian (55) who feels a bit overwhelmed with trying to “keep up,” I’d be interested in hearing stevenb’s tips for how to do this.

  7. As a 47 year old librarian with a 33 year long career, I confess to being a geek of long standing. While my younger colleagues don’t remember the Vic 20 or Pong I do! I get a kick out of being the one to show them how to work the Kinect or beating them at a video game (yes I work with youth).

    I don’t say we did that and it doesn’t work, I say we tried and this is what happened but maybe it is time to try that again. Perhaps there was an issue with the previous implementation or perhaps our community has changed one more time. Sometimes it is successful and sometimes it fails again. Sometimes I just know it will fail but there are lessons in failure. I learned them. They need to.

    Keeping up is what drives me to get up and come to work every day. It means that my job is never the same from year to year, and I don’t want it to be. When I stop seeing the new stuff as cool and interesting, it’s probably time to go. Besides, I love it when our IT department looks at me and says ” ok, what now?”.

    I always try to remember that what is relevant is what we do today, not what I did in the past.

  8. A recent article at Inside Higher Ed argues that institutions could and should be doing more to tap into the potential of late career professors…the same could be said for late career librarians.

    “Fully capitalizing on the assets of senior professors requires that institutions, especially at the department and program level, take a closer look at their senior professors. They need a process, formal or informal, to identify the key strengths, skills, and interests of senior faculty.”

    Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/05/10/tapping-potential-late-career-professors-essay#ixzz2T5L3f4uw
    Inside Higher Ed

  9. Remember how, when the limit of technology was the book, we used to talk about writers and writing? Now we go on and on about becoming adept at using the latest ephemeral gadget or program (which is never really all that difficult, is it?) Always seems to me a case of the package becoming more important than its contents.

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