On the Great Myth of the Librarian Grays

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion (and bitching) about the promised graying/retirement within the library profession that was supposed to open up endless job opportunities for new librarians. The LITA-L email list, a recent American Libraries article, and a post by Peter Brantley calling for an overthrow by the young'uns have all been pretty popular topics of late.

January 15, 2004, Rachel Singer Gordon published a piece in Library Journal titled "NextGen: Get Over the "Graying" Profession Hype". I say again: this was 2004.

It would appear no one took the advice, given that today - despite very obvious evidence to the contrary, American Libraries just printed an ill-advised article on recruiting undergrads to the profession, citing the graying of the profession as a reason for folks to sign up for library work. Jessamyn West, in her recent post "show us the numbers re: new librarian jobs", calls for more than the ever-present empty anecdata touted by library schools, ALA, and professional publications alike. And all of the librarians who have been pounding the pavement (or internet) jobhunting for multiple years agree.

The economy is in the toilet. Any librarian looking for a job is up against hundreds of his or her peers. Those recently out of school are competing against folks with decades of experience under their belt and probably wider networks (though social media is closing this gap quickly). A few things:


For goodness' sake, how myopic are we? Librarianship isn't the only profession where the number of qualified grads outnumbers the available positions. Speak to any English PhD who received their degree in the past 30 years. Political Science PhDs have seen the same trend since I was working in polisci back in 2001.

In fact, while librarianship writ-large isn't "academia" per se, the job market for the profession certainly works a whole lot like that for would-be-professor PhDs. Jobs are very limited, check. There are more qualified degree holders than there are full time well paying positions, check. If you want to be a particular type of librarian (particularly academic, but it applies to other types too), you'll more than likely have to do a regional or national job hunt and not be terribly geographically limited, check. It's funny, but my becoming a librarian did not at all save me from the dangers of jobhunting as a PoliSci PhD.

We're not the only ones who suffer from this. We just act like we are. For all of the social networking we do with each other, we seem to have less a grasp on other professions. Talk to someone who got their master's in social work sometime. Navel-gazing: as a profession, we haz it, as the kitties say.


No, really. A lot of the folks who are burned that the grays won't retire so they can have their jobs (entitlement much?) are only applying for positions within libraries (per their anecdatal stories). Libraries, if no one has noticed, have been receiving giant financial wedgies for some time now, and the recent economic upheaval added some fund-draining noogies on top of that. No, libraries aren't hiring. No, library work often doesn't pay well. But you're perfectly qualified (if you took your courses with an eye more toward being useful than with an eye toward getting out quickly and via the easy route) to deal with knowledge and information management in the corporate setting. Also, the pay is better. Also, you'll be using your library science skills in a completely different environment, which may actually be just what you need in your next job hunt to give you a leg up.


Also, public email list posts with comments like "...my current job is the second one that I have had where I’ve been working for someone who has been ELIGIBLE to retire for multiple years, and who for whatever reason will not give up their position..." - not going to help you much. You come across looking entitled at best, nor is this sort of attitude something those in the position to hire want to hear. Yes, we have old folk in libraries. Actually, we have five generations in the workplace now. FIVE. Diversity - getcha some. No one owes you a job just because you want one, and while I'm pals with a number of "young'uns" in the profession, some of the most effective librarians I know are in their 40s, 50s and older.

I'm quite tired of hearing that only those in their 20s and 30s can change the shape of the profession. From Brantley's post, there is "wide acknowledgment that the greatest sea change of vision and perspective among librarians, museum and archive staff, rests primarily among those (more or less) in their 20s, into their early to mid 30s. This generation has completely different expectations for information management, privacy, direct access to data and people, interaction with services, and organizational behavior." What folks seem to fail to realize is that it's midlevel librarians in their late 30s, 40s and 50s who will be managing those librarians in their 20s and early 30s for the next three decades. Another quote from the Brantley piece: "There should be no directors present, no associate directors present. This is not about them. It is about those who will truly redefine the future of libraries." How silly. The AULs? Are prepped to become ULs. Some of them are *GASP* even in their early 30s. And until this profession realizes that its managers and leaders are essential because they are the ones who fight for and acquire resources that we need to actually get things done, the Young Uprising will remain not much more than pie-in-the-sky talk.

You might also note that those in agreement with Brantley (and I agree with the sentiment, if not the entire post and mechanisms presented) span age boundaries. To be fair, perhaps the vitriol is directed more at ARL ULs than at older generations in general - but it's not phrased that way. This is a "get the old people out of the way" call. And "old people" are not the problem. Sometimes gray is sexy, particularly when it's The Grays who are accomplishing excellent things.


There seems to be a general belief that a school has a moral imperative to let you know the degree they offer you has an oversaturated market and that the job prospects are poor. In fact, library schools are trying to stay open. In further fact, you look like delectable, juicy, tuition dollars.

At the point you are going to graduate school - and much is made the SLIS students tend to be older students, moving into librarianship as a career later in life - you are responsible for knowing what the job market is. Don't you think that rather than listening to the proselytizing of schools and associations that want your money, you should perhaps be scouring the job boards and talking to folks in the field? I have little patience for the "I was told there would be lots of jobs!" complaint. Every field is the same. No art department tells their students they won't be able to get a job as an artist. MFA programs are not lining up to announce that their terminal MFAs are being usurped by the development of creative writing PhD programs. And few graduate advisors tell their entering PhD students that they'll likely be ABD, crushed to death by a dissertation that bears little resemblance to why they entered their program. Law schools are not exactly running to shut themselves down despite a law market that has been oversaturated for years.

There is a serious abdication of personal responsibility when we blame the schools for continuing to graduate MLS folks, and I'm growing weary of hearing it.

I do think, however, we need to hold our associations and professional publications (I'm looking at YOU, American Libraries and ALA) to account for perpetuating false claims. If you find a good way to do that, do let me know.

And so, in closing, yes, the cake is a lie. The profession may be graying, but gray doesn't mean dead or retiring. There has been published work decrying this myth out for the better part of a decade or two, and older librarians remember being fed the same hogwash in the 70s. This does not mean you should be pushing your leaders down stairs in the hopes you'll get their jobs. It does mean that you need to drink a great big glass of suck-it-up-atine, work extra hard at the job hunt (you know who I'm talking about - I am STILL seeing Comic Sans, clip art, and crappy cover letters, people), and developing skills needed in places other than libraries.

Good luck. Go forth. Be useful. And gods forbid you should ever get older than 35, because your so-called colleagues will be plotting your demise.


Mark said…
Thank you for this, Colleen!
Anonymous said…
Also, my thanks. It's about time we had an infusion of common (?) sense. You make many valid points about the reality of being an adult. Blaming others for one's lack of research, knowing full well that SLIS institutions are generally for-profit, and assuming that age is the primary reason for problems--all show a lack of preparation and clear vision.
Anonymous said…
Amen, sister!
Anonymous said…
Amen, sister!
Love this! It has a strange echo for me though. Reminds me a bit of when I graduated from library school in 1981. Hmmm - all those '80's agitators and world changers are now grays themselves. They were part of a rapidly evolving technological world and they're still making things happen.

Perhaps it serves us right!


Mary Jane Maffini
Thank you for pointing out some harsh realities! FWIW, I am one of those old/grays, and I'm still learning ... which cannot always be said of the young'uns who think they *already* know everything. They don't. Some skills and knowledge can only be learned On. The. Job.. from someone who has been doing it for a while and figured out what really works in that unique situation.
Alan Harnum said…
All this is true, but I think that hand-waving the responsibility of the l-schools and professional associations for selling the "impending retirement" mythology for decades is disturbing.

Though you mention that "we need to hold our associations and professional publications to account", that's a bit of throwaway paragraph amidst a great deal of criticism of recent grads for, basically, believing that their schools and professional associations are telling them the truth. Honesty is one of the foundations of a genuine professional ethic, especially for a profession dealing in information.

The carping about "old librarians not retiring" is a separate issue from this and shows genuine naivete about the economy, people's enjoyment of their work, etc. Fully agree on that one (although I think there might be a little less carping if new grads didn't go through school being pelted with articles about the impending retirement of huge swathes of the profession).

As for me: just passed my five-year anniversary as an employed librarian, turned 30 this year, all this my own opinion and not reflecting my employer in any way. :)
Anonymous said…

the only thing missing for me was that little connecting of the dots, between the graying of the profession, and *the advanced age of so many library science students*. so. are the younger librarians seeing a few gray hairs and thinking, "why doesn't s/he just retire" about someone who's only been out of library school FOR TWO YEARS?!!

just wondering. i'm not carping at all about the recruitment of people to the profession. i do think it's a little unjust, though, to assume that the freshest new librarians must be young. if our median age while in library school is 35, what do people really expect?
Anonymous said…
It's not only ALA perpetuating the myth.. perhaps the U.S. Department of Labor needs to be held accountable, as well?

From the 2004-05 Occupational Outlook Handbook: "Employment of librarians is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations over the 2002–12 period. However, job opportunities are expected to be very good because a large number of librarians are expected to retire in the coming decade, creating many job openings."

From the current Occupational Outlook Handbook: "Job growth is expected to be as fast as the average and job opportunities are expected to be favorable, as a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade."

Although, the current outlook does include a nod to limits on budgets and replacements of librarians with library technicians.

Just sayin'.
warmaiden said…
Alan - I agree, I gave short shrift to the responsibility of schools and our professional organizations. I think that's a whole 'nother blog post in and of itself. @Anonymous - I wonder where the Occupational Outlook is getting their data. Namely, I wonder if they're weighting their text by the propaganda run out of the associations. If not, I'd love to see their data :)

And Anonymous - YES. Funny how folks want to claim the 24 year olds should inherit it all when the folks we're graduating aren't too far from gray themselves. If the cutoff for "young" is 35, then we're a gray profession by nature, since most of us come to LIS by way of having multiple other careers first. This is an excellent point.
holly said…
oh, well said, Colleen. well said. thank you!
Ha! Great post! This debate goes on and on and its easy to think, "Imavictim!". This always makes me laugh. There were so few jobs when I got my masters that I started as a para-pro.

I was waiting around for the old guys to get out of my way as a sassy young know-it-all in the mid-'70s. Then some of those "advanced-in-years-people" took me under their wing and taught me how to be the librarian I am today.

I get to be the old fart now and watch the repeat of my career starting hubris in a few of the young folks around me. The funny part is that I know I helped effect change at the state, regional and national level that helped bring us to the future we live in now. Nobody had to get out of the way -I found that partnerships made me powerful enough to do the stuff I dreamed of - and that my mentors dreamed of as well!

I work with young turks now and look for ways to give them a leg up and over. I just hope they drop a hand down and bring me up and along with them. We all got the goods, children, we all got the goods!
Liz said…
The problem is all those young'uns (of which I am one!) don't want to hear that there aren't any jobs and thus will ignore it no matter how many people are telling them.

For the record, I do have a job (a full time academic librarian job at that) that I started just a few months after graduation. I got it because I applied to over 100 jobs all over the country and was willing to move to another part of the country. There are jobs, there are lots of jobs. It's just that there are more librarians and a lot of them don't have matching skills. (Case in point: 90+ people applied for my government documents/liaison librarian position. About 35 applied for our recently opened web services position, and you can bet at least half of them aren't qualified.)
warmaiden said…
Elizabeth - Yes! I found out after I got my first full time job in reference & instruction that over 150 people had applied for the job. I had also sent out a ton of applications. I dont think you realize until you do it how grueling and time consuming it is to craft and tailor so many cover letters and CVs. Job hunting is a lot like...well, work. :)
Allison said…
You are totally on point here, especially in noting that this situation exists in many, many professions. When I was interested in a history PhD, I was sold on the "a great wave of retirements is in the works." Ha. Fortunately I didn't pursue the history doctorate, as there are very, very few jobs in that field now.

Ten years before that, when my partner was in English programs (BA, then MA, then PhD) he was told that the Great Retirement Wave was about to hit English and comp. No such luck. In fact, when people do retire, schools are replacing their tenure-track profs with contract lecturers, who command less pay and have less job security.

Also, as rhetoric has become its own profession, the thing that English PhDs could always get a job in - teaching comp - is rapidly shifting into specialized writing and rhetoric programs.

Meanwhile, some of us skipped off the academic track to get graduate degrees in useful things like communication. It's an employable field, if not exactly high-growth, but it's also soul-sucking.

With the economy the way it is, people are delaying retirement, and rightfully so. The fields that were going to be the hot new thing (like communication) are stagnating. And in general, those of us in our 20s and 30s who bought into the line that the right degrees + internships + connections = career success are having to suck it up and deal with reality.

With the situation as it is, I think the best thing anyone can do is to let go of expectations and just see where opportunities - even unexpected ones - lead.
Radical Patron said…
For public libraries, the issues folks have been blogging about lately seem to stem from a structural problem in the way libraries are organized and funded.

Readers might be interested in this take, including a proposed solution: a National Public Library Corporation.
Beth said…
I'm a recent library grad looking for a job, and I think you made a lot of good points. Your discussion of responsibility resonated with me. I think it is important for library students to understand the situation they are getting into, although it's not helping that the ALA is still spreading that "librarian shortage" myth.

It's a pretty difficult situation for recent graduates right now. Many of us are really dedicated to this field, and realizing that there aren't enough jobs out there for many (if not most) new librarians is simply crushing. I don't believe that anyone owes me a job, but I do feel that library/archival work is where I belong. It's just sad that it seems the library field does not have room for many bright and dedicated professionals.
Anonymous said…
As a recent library grad I have to agree with Beth on every point. I couldn't have said it my self.
twinkle-bot said…
A couple of things here:

First, the census bureau/bureau of labor statistics are pulling demographic data from their own census numbers. They are making the same old demographic argument for job creation that has been made for years by ALA as Colleen and others have noted. This argument is flawed because it doesn't account for external factors such as economics. Ultimately demographics will win (it always does), but there are too many assumptions in these arguments to push on them too strongly (e.g. retirement age = 65, in what world?).

Second, I don't think anyone is seriously arguing to push people out of their positions - or if they are, they are fringe voices that should have their volume turned way down (or muted). Those types of arguments are not helpful, and they come from a place of frustration - the same place of frustration that Brantley and others are coming from. I come from that place too. Lets not be too quick to throw the baby out with the bath water here. There are many great points being made about organizing 'youngsters' in the LIS field to make their voices heard. Concerns about succession planning sessions at conferences and meetings being populated with directors and assistant directors are quite valid - this type of planning needs to look not just at the next level down in the hierarchy, it needs to look all the way to the bottom.
warmaiden said…
@twinklebot - thank you for the information on the data - I wasn't sure how those numbers were arrived at, and that info is very helpful.

I am by no means against organizing the 'youngsters' (of which, at 31, I suppose I am). They have a lot to contribute, and as a former parapro myself, I agree that we need to take into account info & desires from every level. I consider succession planning essential, and probably something we don't do enough of. My concern is more with the whopping generalizations that those who arent retiring are keeping young folk from getting jobs, that only the young folk have the skills and interest to move us forward as a profession, and that no one need take into account that the folks who have access to the resources we need to get things done are often our managers, of which the 25-35 y/o cohort does not yet make up a majority.

I'd be much more interested in seeing a tone of working together to get voices heard than to push out an entire (large) demographic of the profession that has worked hard to get us where we are today. Folks seem to forget that while they're looking to build The Next Great Libraryworld, those older folks are the ones who moved us from the library of the 1970s to the (relatively) futuristic ones we have today.
Floatingclouds said…
I graduated from SJSU in 2006. Many people in my MLIS class were not young people, but people in their 40's and 50's just starting their professional library careers. Some were going through a 1st, 2nd or 3rd career change, some had worked in libraries forever as para-professionals and decided to finally go for their MLIS degree once library school classes became accessible to those who had to work full time by being offered online. Library School preaches 'life-long-learning' as a standard librarian MO. Baby boomers are healthy, youthful and active. They ain't retiring_EVER. Many will change careers, go back to school to acquire new skills or for self-interest purposes and stay active and engaged throughout their lives. This myth of gray hairs (who is gray these days anyway?) retiring is based on a 1950's outmoded, outdated ethos & culture, and on better economic times.
Tanya said…
Yes- the LIS schools are often cash cows for their academic institutions. But I don't think that lets them off the hook in this situation. English and philosophy PhD programs are now letting in fewer people to their programs, to try to ensure that their graduates will be able to get jobs and not just flood the market. I think I-schools should also have to look at this...
Mid-Career Librarian said…
From my perspective, as someone fortunate enough to have a full-time job in a public library, the greying of the profession is a real problem - not just for new MLS graduates, but for libraries as institutions. The Internet has had and continues to have a huge, disruptive impact on libraries. While I have some wonderful older colleagues who embrace new technologies and are constantly learning, there are too many others (particularly in management, alas) who just don't get it. I'm talking about people whose Internet use is limited to email and the occasional Google search - who have never made a purchase online, never uploaded a photo, never used a mobile app, never read an eBook. (And here's a dirty little secret: many of them have never even used the library's own online services.)

So I understand the bitterness of recent graduates who can't find jobs - libraries need you, but they don't know they need you.
Anonymous said…
I think something else that library schools and the professional associations aren't discussing is the fact that, at least in public libraries, if someone does retire rarely will anyone (newbie or otherwise) get that job anyway. That enticing full-time-with-benefits position will be removed due to budget reductions and if the library is lucky they'll at least get to hire a part time librarian instead of a paraprofessional to fill that gap.
Now the whole "is something wrong w/ this system if one is required to have a masters degree in order to hold down a part time position?" vs the "evils" of paraprofessionals (at least they aren't forced to take on massive student loan debt even if they are supposedly an evil) is an entirely different topic to debate.
However broken this system may or may not be, people need to stop kidding themselves that 1) librarians are going to retire anytime soon due to love of the job, the economy, their savings, whatever and 2) that there will be available full time jobs when and if they do retire.
POB said…
Informative article, but I have to be honest - the fact that the crappy job market (in all sectors not just the library) has boiled down to the Boomers fighting off their own spawn (Gen Y) to keep their cush jobs amuses me to no end. It is a veritable battle royale of one group of the OVER-entitled vs their equally OVER-entitled spawn. Meanwhile Gen X stands on the sidelines watching the show. Hey, when you guys are done clawing out each other's jugular, can we have your jobs?
POB said…
Informative article, but I have to be honest - the fact that the crappy job market (in all sectors not just the library) has boiled down to the Boomers fighting off their own spawn (Gen Y) to keep their cush jobs amuses me to no end. It is a veritable battle royale of one group of the OVER-entitled vs their equally OVER-entitled spawn. Meanwhile Gen X stands on the sidelines watching the show. Hey, when you guys are done clawing out each other's jugular, can we have your jobs?
POB said…
Informative article, but I have to be honest - the fact that the crappy job market (in all sectors not just the library) has boiled down to the Boomers fighting off their own spawn (Gen Y) to keep their cush jobs amuses me to no end. It is a veritable battle royale of one group of the OVER-entitled vs their equally OVER-entitled spawn. Meanwhile Gen X stands on the sidelines watching the show. Hey, when you guys are done clawing out each other's jugular, can we have your jobs?
Anonymous said…
After a disastrous job search for my undergraduate degree in computer science because I didn't have any experience, my masters of library science was suppose to be my slam dunk career. I did internships i networked i did everything right that i didn't do for my undergraduate degree and it was suppose to be easy to get a job this time. Little did i know that after more than a year and a half of looking for my first library job i would be recieveing emails like one that i received recently that 250 people applied for one YA librarian job and i was not even to be considered. Would have been nice if someone at SJSU informed me during the 2 and a half years of online classes where i barley even got to see a professor in person (even though I lived on campus) that the job market for the profession was in the toilet.
Anonymous too said…
I also have an undergraduate degree in computer science. I graduated after 9/11 and the economy was bad then too. Only half of my classmates had 1 job offer. It is completely demoralizing to be unemployed and have everyone assume it is your fault. I went to library school, worked part time in a library, interned, and did a practicum. I moved to the middle of nowhere in order to secure a full time position in an academic library. That was back in 2007 right before the recession started.

I'm really grateful to be employed in my chosen field. We have several frozen positions. A recent search yielded 3x the normal amount of applicants and 1/3 of those were completely qualified top choice candidates. Public service positions seem to get the most applicants. There is slightly less competition in tech services. Good luck to all the job hunters. If you can hold on a little longer some of the frozen positions will be opened.
Anonymous said…
As a newly minted librarian, I have all but given up on dreams of trad librarianship. While I would like the chance to pursue a career as either an academic or public librarian, I fear that I don't have the patience. The hiring process for many academic librarian posts, for example, is ridiculous and expensive.

What I don't like about Brantley's argument and in parts of the tone in this post is the idea that I am fundamentally the same as everyone else my age, and that we are fundamentally different from generations that came before. Apparently, I'm from Generation Y, which means that I've attended speeches where a Baby Boomer speaker has told me that I don't know what a record is, and that I should be addicted to Spongebob Squarepants.

I find this profiling of generations tiresome. While I readily admit that I don't have very much experience in the library field compared to someone who has ten or more years, I want eventually to get to a point where I can be a senior person who shapes how a libraries develop. I don't think that's entitlement.

The other dynamic of this dialogue is the haves telling the have-nots to quit whining. I do have a job in the field, but I'm not so far into it that I've forgotten how much it sucks not to have a job. If people whine about not getting a job, for goodness sakes, be constructive. If people don't follow your constructive advice then that's their problem.

I don't see a problem with getting more undergrads into the profession, though I would agree that recruiting them because of the "graying of the profession" is misinformation. They should be recruiting them because of the changing nature of the profession and the increased demand in other industries (which, I know, isn't an entirely clear demand).
Anonymous said…
This is spot-on. I was one of those librarians told back in the late 70's that there would be a huge wave of retirements just about the time I graduated, and, well ... I'm still waiting. Older librarians can't afford to retire, and when they do there's no guarantee their jobs will be open for someone else to take. I've looked at other jobs from time to time, and I'm afraid that if I do leave, they'll simply restructure the whole department to eliminate my current job.
Anonymous said…
Colleen, you're a terrible writer! Every paragraph filled with cliches, and non-words like "suck-it-up-atine". If only I could forgive the bad writing, I might think you had something original to say. Instead you blame librarians looking for work for being whiny. Nothing new there, just a hack pointing it out. I'll never get this 5 minutes back either...
Anonymous said…
There will always be attrition-people retiring, dying/disabled (sorry but it's a fact), and some leaving the profession. EVERY college/university and grad school applicant needs to be aware that there's no magic job waiting at the end of the rainbow, ahem graduation. That said, there ARE things we can do, as library students, to make ourselves far more marketable! I'm not going to do your homework for you if you don't know what those things are! I'm going to the job you might not get because I'm personable, skilled, professional, get grades, am older (wink,wink,nudge,nudge) and adapt well to change. I'm going to work while in library school, network my a@@ off, and make friends wherever I go from conventions to conferences to practicum/practica and I will get that job!
Anonymous said…
I am about to establish my own, personal job since you don't see any great jobs available.

Could anybody provide any suggestions or online resources about how to apply for government grant money to start my personal business? I've been looking via the internet but almost every web site demands for money and I have already been told by the unemployment office to avoid the sites that want money for grant info as they are scammers. I would be truly thankful for any help.

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