Late night thoughts on retirement
On a Saturday in December I shall make the closing announcement one last time, lock the front door, perhaps smile briefly at the stacks, the new book display, and the computing commons, turn out the lights, and walk away from my library forever.
You may think the retirement decision was easy, and that retirement has been highly anticipated. Your mileage may vary, but it has been neither easy nor highly anticipated for me. I loved libraries and I loved the work, and taking leave of it has been hard -- a lot harder than I thought it would be. I'll simply say that it has been both an emotional and difficult time.
If a job, not so hard to leave. But if a calling, much harder.
I had planned on working longer, but when my city offered incentives to longtime employees to retire -- which coincided with my qualifying for full retirement under our state and municipal employees' pension system -- it made sense to take advantage of the opportunity.
In my library system, three of us are taking the incentive and departing. Since the point of the incentives is to trim city payroll, we will not be replaced with newhires nor with other staff moving up the ladder. Our positions are being eliminated permanently.
Even if times were good, however, I'm not sure my managers would necessarily replace me and my colleagues with degreed librarians. In my system, I think the future belongs to library assistants, who will do much of the work at lower pay.
I'm not being critical of my managers. Given how the nature of library work is changing, shifting work from master's degree holders to, say, holders of two-year community college degrees, makes sense. Reference is not yet dead, but its circumstances are much reduced: We need fewer reference librarians, but many more people who can demonstrate how the print-release station works, who can sign people up for study rooms, who can troubleshoot computer problems or answer questions about using Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and IE, or who can proctor exams, and so on. These tasks do not require a master's degree nor even a bachelor's degree. There should probably still be one classic reference librarian in the building -- a know-it-all in the best possible sense of the expression -- but the need for a phalanx of reference librarians in the Age of Google is just not there.
If I were in my director's shoes, I'd carry out a reassessment of my patron's needs in light of the staff knowledge, skills, and abilities actually needed to meet them, and then hire and pay accordingly. There is no room for sentiment here, nor should there be.
I used to work long shifts at a busy reference desk where the intellectual challenge was daunting, because I had to shift constantly from one subject to another: It could be physics one moment, case law the next, pet care the one after that, and then finding a medical specialist, helping with a math problem, or looking up the bond rating for a corporation. I loved it. I had had a broad undergraduate education and was comfortable with math, science, technology, history, and the humanities, was fluent in two languages and had a grip on the basics of a couple more, knew all
the nooks and crannies into which our culture tucked information, and had a good memory.
Before the library, I had prepared for an entirely different career but two years into it decided it wasn't for me and had begun casting about for something better to do. The young lady I was dating at the time -- now my spouse and still the best librarian I've ever seen -- understood my strengths and personality and suggested librarianship. She was right on target. I was never as happy as when I was on an extraordinarily busy reference desk, pre-Google, pulling the information rabbit out of the resources hat time and time and time again. I couldn't believe I was being paid -- and paid decently -- to have fun.
It seemed the very work I was designed and destined to do.
If I may be permitted a very late career brag: I was awfully good at it. I and a certain desk partner who was a lot like me and whose strengths balanced my weaknesses and vice versa, felt there was nothing . . . nothing . . . we couldn't answer or resolve. Our head of reference once glanced at us at the beginning of an evening shift and said "reference is in good hands tonight."
What a great compliment that was, and it was true.
You can imagine I'm slightly miffed at Google. But I'm no Luddite. I taught myself BASIC and Fortran programming while in library school, had a personal computer very early on, loved the web when I got wind of it (seeing it as the very embodiment of Theodore Nelson's hypertext scheme, though Ted would no doubt not agree that the web is indeed that embodiment), and created my library's first website in 1993. (I think we were among the first 50 public libraries to have one.)
I still think a reference librarian with an education both deep and broad and with a terrific memory can blow Google away. More to the point, such a librarian who knows how to wring out of Google everything it can provide can blow UG (unassisted Google) away.
So I hate to see some libraries completely concede reference to the bots, as at least one here in metro Phoenix has (but not mine).
But Americans hate middlemen and intermediaries, and librarians sure look like middlemen and intermediaries to me.
So I get it.
It isn't that UG -- unassisted Google -- is "good enough" for most searches; it's that many former patrons are going to prefer UG over us whether we like it or not, and whether they know it isn't as good for them or not, simply because they no longer need to appear before us as supplicants.
And so, any smart director knows he or she isn't going to need as many reference librarians, or degreed people, in the building as before, especially if in addition to reductions in reference work, outsourcing of collection development and cataloguing is implemented.
In short, the future needs much less reference help and a whole lot more computer help. It needs sharp library assistants, not librarians.
My wife probably wouldn't advise me to seek librarianship today and she says as much. I can't in good conscience advise people to seek jobs in the field, unless they realize exactly what they are getting into:
- Much less reference work; much more computer support and handholding. Less demand for professionals; more demand for paraprofessionals.
- Less human contact; more reliance on bots, be they self-checks, unmanned book kiosks or something we haven't even thought of yet (see the August 2009 Library Journal cover story, "Self Service Library").
- Less focus on information, more on entertainment.
- Redefinition of the library as "community center," with all that implies.
In short, it will be much less about information, and information quality, and self-education, and much more about providing and supporting a computing commons, media for entertainment, and premises for community activities.
No doubt socially useful work lurks in this future. Some may find excitement in redefining the library's mission and executing the new plan.
But the new library landscape seems to disrespect knowledgeability and authority. (And though as Americans we all love to heap abuse on authority, think how useful the old library notion of authority could be in a world of crowdsourcing, of "information" produced by amateurs or by those with hidden agendas.)
My decision to retire makes personal and financial sense for me and dovetails with my city's needs right now. But beyond such considerations, the new public library has much less need for librarians like me, and therefore it is indeed a good time for me to move on.
There isn't a market for what I do best.
Traditional librarian jobs are going to be much scarcer. Budget cuts lurk in our future as far as any horizon I can see. We will never see the funding levels again that we once had. Librarians will indeed retire, but their positions will be eliminated or converted into paraprofessional ones. I would have liked to see our profession and our institutions take on the bots. But that isn't going to happen, because the people who pay our salaries don't want us to take on the bots.
I would respectfully beg anyone thinking of seeking a professional degree in LIS to reconsider. There aren't going to be jobs for most of you, and even the few of you who do get jobs may find they are nothing like what you expected.
At the least, go in with your eyes open. It's going to be a rough ride for libraries and librarians. Immense piles of taxpayer money are going to be needed for health care and to service our debt to the central banks of China; much less will be available for things like libraries.
. . .
I am planning on a second act, but it won't involve libraries (or, since nothing is certain, I'll say I would be highly surprised if it did).
Once, a day at "work" was something I looked forward to and couldn't wait to get to. (Even today, post Google, it can still be.) It was an institution in which I was proud to work and a title I was proud to bear. It wasn't a job but a calling. I am lucky to have done it for so long with such good colleagues and such good patrons.
All that is good ends, and, as Robert Frost said, "Nothing gold can stay."
I shall miss it.
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