Are the Boomers Ruining Libraries?

GilesGiven the seniors are major users of libraries, maybe they will be a boon.

But are they a boon as leaders?

Once again I was leading a discussion of library directors, examining the serious and somewhat systemic issues facing our future and prospects for service. There are staffing issues (why are librarians always named as the problem rather than the solution? why are other staff more willing to experiment and try different roles?), there are financial issues (we seem to have an influence deficit), there are positioning issues (we face the prospect of “death by opportunity” given the many directions we appear to be pursuing).

Then one director smiled smugly and said she didn’t have to worry about it as she would be retiring in five years.

One colleague screamed (well, maybe it seemed like a scream to me) that we didn’t have five years to determine a direction and turn the ship.

Another indelicately suggested early retirement or just getting out of the way so those vested in the future could move forward.

Sadly this is not even close to the first time that I have witnessed this smugness.

How can we be passionate about an agency we see leaving to face its demise?

Of course, of course, there are exceptions.

But there are also too many people clogging the talent ladder at a time when those who will spend most of their lives in the future need to provide leadership in shaping it.

About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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3 Responses to Are the Boomers Ruining Libraries?

  1. Ken Roberts July 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    I heard much the same thing, recently, from one director of a large library system. He expressed the opinion that he was probably the last Chief Librarian that his city would need because he only wanted to work for another five years and, by then, it would be clear that the city didn’t need a library. So, that system is doing no planning and no visioning and no work to transition services; it is in the hands of a caretaker – or, maybe, an undertaker.

    Sigh.

  2. Penny Grant July 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    HI Ken

    I agree that anyone in a great job (like a librarian) who has stopped trying to solve professional problems and is sitting back waiting to retire is a problem in the profession.

    However, this is not new. As a retired library director, I remember lots of librarians announcing that they were planning to retire – years before they had enough money in their pensions to actually enjoy retirement. It really bugged me.

    Now, as a retired person myself (I left when the then law said I had to – at 65) I think someone should point out to these folks that retirement is not a panacea. It is darned hard work to find anything half as satisfying and fun as working in the world of libraries.

  3. Richard Huffine July 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Ken – Thanks for stoking the fire for discussion about leadership in our profession. Leadership does not come from position but there is no question that management holds a lot of the cards when we consider transforming libraries. With diminishing resources and what I see as expanding demand (I like the “death by opportunity” concept), I can see how a manager that is ill-prepared to lead could freeze up.

    I don’t necessarily place the cause of this phenomena on the age or future plans of these managers however. I think anyone in their position may struggle with identifying a path forward. Some library functions continue to take a lot of time, space, and skill to manage – outstripping the perceived value of their function to many library users. We cannot, however, jettison these functions or cut the process down to be in-line with their value easily. The challenge is one of “sunk costs” and the long-tail of value that these laborious efforts will ultimately offer society, not just the users we have or want to have today.

    My solution would be to carve out (or raise) “venture capital” for new services and functions – encouraging and inspiring staff of all ages to seek out ideas that can be tested and deployed using these new funds to prove the concept and build support from users and staff alike.

    Managing and leading are two very different functions but I think we need to train, inspire and judge every member of our staff on these competencies. Holding just our managers accountable for the position we are in is a losing strategy for everyone. Thanks for starting the conversation! I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

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