Retiring the Golden Years

By Will Manley

October 27, 2009

The last thing you want to hear is that times are tough. You're living it. You don't need to be reminded. Hours are being cut back, book budgets are being slashed, and librarians are being laid off.

The personnel cuts are the ones that create the most fear and pain. As I talk to librarians at conferences and meetings, I pick up a subtle but strong undercurrent of resentment from younger librarians toward those colleagues who are eligible for retirement but who have given no signs of even considering it. They won't come right out and say that Bertha the cataloging curmudgeon, who is as obsolete as the card catalog to which she devoted most of her career, should step aside and make room for a younger, more innovative person, but you know that they are thinking it.

In tough times, the reality is that the most protected workers are the ones with the most tenure. If Bertha would retire, a younger colleague might be spared a layoff. But Bertha wants to stay put. She hates change. If it were up to her, the card catalog would never have been taken away.

Retirement is a tricky concept. You can't force a person to retire. The more you push, the harder the employee can push back. Lawyers are making big money on age discrimination lawsuits. But people who resist retirement often do retire-on the job. That creates even more resentment among younger workers.

You might consider retirement if you remember doing some of the following things in your career: 1) reading Wilson Library Bulletin every month, 2) using a typewriter to produce catalog cards, 3) processing punch cards, 4) wielding a date due stamp, 5) gluing pockets into books, 6) saying "libraries will never be able to afford computers," 7) identifying yourself as an original cataloger, 8) looking up a line of poetry in Granger's, 9) starting an 8-track tape collection, 10) threading super-8 millimeter film loops into a projector, 11) cranking out staff memos on a ditto machine, 12) reminiscing about the tactile pleasures of using a card catalog, 13) putting newspapers onto bamboo rods section by section, 14) working in a library equipped with window air conditioners, 15) calling the photocopier "a newfangled machine," 16) debating whether paperbacks were sturdy enough for library use, 17) using a library parking lot with no handicapped spaces, 18) asking a job applicant if she was married with children, 19) justifying a lower salary for a colleague because her husband has a good job, 20) keeping sex-ed books behind the circulation desk on a shelf hidden by chintz curtains, or 21) watching a colleague being forced into retirement because of a personnel policy making 65 the mandatory retirement age.

Two years ago, I realized I had done 17 of those 21 things and I knew that I was officially a dinosaur. For me the choice between working and living a life of leisure was a nobrainer. I was made for retirement.

But some librarians aren't. They would rather help their patrons plan a trip to Hawaii than go there themselves. They would rather shelve books on golf than play golf. They would rather catalog the latest bestseller than read it. They would rather endure problem patrons than be one.

Go figure.

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and nine books on the lighter side of library science. Write him at


Newsmaker: Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education talks with American Libraries about how the federal government can help libraries as the national financial crisis trickles down to the local level.