Addressing the Librarian Age Gap

Andy has a provocative post looking at the numbers in libraries and where ages of the profession are trending.

He asks the question of what we think is causing the age gap.

I think it’s somewhat propagated by two things: by librarians primarily recruiting people into the profession who are closer to their own age and the expectations of what our future coworkers will bring to the table from their work in other professions.

Librarians and libraries have self-promotion issues that we’re struggling mightily against–particularly in the current climate of budget cuts/layoffs/closures/etc.  We may know we’re doing cool things but we’re insular and primarily talk to ourselves and about ourselves. We have our own conferences, our own professional networks, and the navel gazing can become exhausting.  Dorothea pointed out on the Book of Trogool that we’re hiding in the comfortable space of library conferences, publications, and desks and not showing relevance to professions we’re trying to serve. One of the side effects of that is adults in other professions don’t see and know what we’re doing and so aren’t promoting us as an interesting profession choice to their children.

Add to that our stereotypical reputation of being aging pruney spinsters, usually disciplinarian, and underpaid without the “making a difference” reputation that young adults perceive in something like education or social work and we’re up against an unappealing wall.  Future librarians have to come to us, break into our inside-joke-riddled inner circles, and what outreach we are doing seems to be to people who are like us–in looks, in mindset and in age. We bring the already faithful into the fold instead of actively creating the idea of this being a valuable and cool future for people just starting out.* There are young scientist, author, engineer, etc programs, yet at present I can’t see a young librarians program really getting off the ground. Maybe someone will prove me wrong.

Some libraries will step up and push their single teen/children’s librarian, hipster adult librarian, etc to the front and say “But we have HER!” Right. Her**. Singular. I’m the youngest professional in my library by nearly a decade and let me state: one young person in your building does not create a work place culture that appeals to young professionals. Because young adults are graduating from LIS programs in small numbers, young librarians are scattered incredibly thinly–doled out as new blood among branches of a major library system or singular creatures in a smaller library, or headed across country to find that elusive first job.

What internally or public facing do we do to encourage or appeal to young adults? I see conference programs regularly about how to get multiple generations to understand their differences, but the hiring reality doesn’t seem to be so inter-generational.  Instead the young ones are the exceptions to the rule, and if hired, still flung at the web/computer problems whether they like them or not, expected to pick up extra time because coworkers plead family responsibilities or have endless weeks of vacation, or anticipated to pick up extra responsibilities simply because of their youth. Couple that with the pervasive “we’ve always done it that way” attitude that still runs rampant in many libraries and wonder how exciting you would have found it at twenty-two.

In slides posted from a recent presentation, Jenica Rogers talked about the fact that she’s considered old by the college students at her library (slide 18), despite being a mere 33–quite a youthful age in libraries. I have had my Master’s Degree for five years already and I’m still shy of thirty. I can speak first hand to running into librarians who dismissed me as not worth talking to or not worth hiring because of my age. I’ve been written off as one of those upstart kids demanding older people retire, despite never having said that. Can I prove reverse discrimination? Of course not.  But I’m competing with people who have equal experience in the field and a decade in another profession that they can show as having parallels to library work. The perception I have been given is that it is not enough to have wanted to become a librarian first.

And that leads me to my second point:

We don’t create a culture for young adult librarians because, when we hire new people, I think we expect them to bring their other experiences to round out what it is they are doing in libraries. LIS programs are supposed to be there to teach us how to find and evaluate information and be excellent generalists. But the reality for job seekers is that you’re also strongly preferred to have multiple years of  outside experience (extra bonus for management experience) and/or an extra degree in the humanities, in medicine, in education, in business, in a subject area that will make you seem “legitimate” to your patrons. I’m certainly not against more education, continued learning, specialized librarians bringing what you already know or other things that you’re interested in. Not by any means. But if those are the entry hurdles that must be leaped to join the profession, is there even any wonder that anyone under thirty and considering their first profession is skeptical of libraries?

So what happens? Students who might be interested in library careers are looked at askance by their peers, who see them going into a profession that keeps loudly proclaiming itself dead and dying.*** They may instead go out to other careers, get their student loans pared down and then put themselves through two-three more years of a LIS program to incur more debt and graduate to face a stiffly competitive job market for, primarily, management positions. To read the job boards and the listservs, libraries seem to be bleeding directors and department heads. While many of us have, will, do and are striving to be good managers and while library management has it’s own black eye, it’s another area where you need experience to get the job, need the job to get the experience–and young adults often have neither.

I am a blatant exception to age norms, having started my LIS program before my 21st birthday. It’s the career I wanted, not my second choice, not what I whittled down to after burning out or decided I didn’t like my first choice. When I started library school there were four of us in our 20s, I the baby by about four years. We headed into four very different branches of library science: one to law, one to Ivy League, one to archives, and I’ve worked in two public libraries. Then we were “the kids” together. Post graduation we’ve spread across multiple states. Of the four of us, the one with pre-LIS management experience got a job the fastest, though last I heard said librarian was looking to get out of libraries.

I’m not against working with multiple generations. I’ve done it in every job I’ve worked in and expect to for the rest of my life.  I’ve certainly benefited from those who have done this before me and with whom I’ve had the opportunity to talk and work and I expect to benefit from people coming to the profession after me. I’m not against recruiting people into libraries as their second career. We see a lot of really dedicated librarians come to the profession, ready to advocate because they do see a point and a do see a purpose. And I do presently work in a system where we do have a number of people who did do undergrad straight to LIS program.

But one of the ways libraries need to show their relevance is to demonstrate that we’re not solely internally focused, and that it can be and should be a first career choice for the enthusiastic undergrads.  Now then, off to research acquiring a Hollywood lobbyist.

*My library friend Eric Sizemore says we need to lobby Hollywood to get a better reputation of librarians out there. He’s got a point.

**Mostly they are women, men are fewer and farther between.

***Oooh–sign me up! Oh wait…did that already :-p

2 Comments

  1. Comment by David Rothman:

    I dunno’, Abs. You have some good points, but I think it may be oversimplification to attribute everything to generational issues.

  2. Comment by Abigail:

    Oh I’ve no doubt there’s more than that. But those are points that stick out to me.