Wait! You Can’t Retire Without Sharing That with Us

Retaining the institutional knowledge of librarians who will soon leave the profession

October 26, 2010


As libraries face the departure of staff with well-honed reference skills, years of experience in the community, and deep knowledge of the collection and traditional resources, how can we identify and retain their departing expertise—the gold in the library’s intellectual vault? How can we ensure that newly minted employees with e-knowledge skills have access to and a growing appreciation of what is most valuable in traditional knowledge? Now, perhaps more than ever before in the history of our profession, what we do and what we are will be affected by retirement’s brain drain. We need to be proactive in finding ways to hold on to valuable skills and knowledge. This is more than just succession planning; it is the redefinition and reinforcement of our core services and values.

The Humanities Department of the Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library’s (TLCPL) Main branch has developed tips and techniques for this critical effort that can be adopted by libraries of all sizes and applied to everyone from top administrators through front-line librarians and clerical staff. We aren’t focused on keeping the old ways of doing things because they are old. Instead, we’re concentrating on building bridges between traditional knowledge and mastery and newer skills. It’s classic knowledge management with a twist; we want to capture information in a way that makes it easier to share across our rapidly changing organization.

Few articles in library literature directly address the effect that retirements will have on the knowledge base of the library profession as a whole—which probably can’t be objectively measured. However, the numbers we do have are clear. According to former American Library Association’s Office for Research and Statistices director Mary Jo Lynch, writing in American Libraries in March 2002 and January 2005, about 45% of current librarians will reach age 65 during the current decade, with retirements peaking in 2015–2019. Updated research by Denise Davis, in her September 2005 American Libraries article, “Library Retirements: What We Can Expect,” reinforces these observations.

To retain the value represented by departing employees, it’s vital to plan ahead by keeping track of who is rotating toward retirement. Ideally, the formal process of in-depth evaluation should begin about three to six months before retirement, but the actual information gathering should be career-long, facilitated by the yearly review. We shouldn’t be surprised at the discovery of an employee’s key strengths shortly before he or she retires—or worse, when those capabilities are sorely missed later.

Which employees exemplify the system’s best practices? Encourage them to document what they do; what’s their road map to success? Could they train their peers or incoming staff? We’ve narrowed the planning focus into three main categories: skills, knowledge, and connections.


Most retiring librarians will be leaving with 25 to 35 years of experience in programming, reference interviews, instruction, public speaking, and outreach, among many other skills. What can be learned from them before they leave? Consider asking these professionals to write down the ideas and insights they want to ensure don’t get lost once they leave. In the course of their careers, what programs have worked well and why? What didn’t work, and why? What other career-long best practices can they share? What handouts, displays, craft projects, or other effective pieces have they created that can be gathered and passed on to another staff member?

Regular yearly evaluations should highlight skills from both the manager’s and employee’s perspective. Ideally, evaluations should be kept simple and to the point, focusing on four primary questions:

  1. What have you done this year?
  2. What are you most proud of?
  3. What do you want to do during the upcoming year?
  4. How can I [the manager] help you?

Managers can use this input, along with their own observations, to write the narrative of the evaluation and collaborate with the employee on creating goal statements. This time of intense focus on the individual can help reveal his or her greatest skills and the resources and systems (print/electronic, anything!) in which they are most expert.

Here are ways for managers to guarantee that yearly evaluations will yield valuable content:

  • Encourage staff to hone their skills and come up with innovative ideas. TLCPL launched a successful “Free the Genie” program to encourage brainstorming and develop new initiatives for the library to explore. The emphasis was on short-term projects that would make a difference to the most people. With their deep experience, retiring employees could make significant contributions to these projects.
  • Encourage collaboration to avoid specialty silos. We need to foster staff collaboration and overlap in our institutional responsibilities, to actively discourage a proprietary mind-set. As the organization flattens, the silos will dissipate and specialized information will be more readily available to others in the organization.
  • Reward best practices and best new ideas verbally and tangibly. A great way to preserve institutional knowledge is to document, recognize, and celebrate it. Rewards don’t have to be monetary or even very expensive; casual days are very popular at TLCPL.


The unique and valuable things people know can include familiarity with complex procedures, responsibilities for handling special tasks (such as special collections), strong weeding abilities, good collection development skills, or readers’ advisory capabilities. Are there any specific “special” tasks done for staff or patrons that would be missed once the retiree leaves? All too often, we take small but important tasks for granted, especially when someone has been solely responsible for doing something for a long time.

The Humanities Department strengthens and documents collection development skills by developing “collection snapshots.” Each librarian prepares a statement for his or her areas of responsibility. Having these statements available has allowed some degree of continuity even though our staff and staffing levels have changed dramatically. These documents can be tailored to fit any need and can also be completed by anyone at any level.

Librarians on the verge of retirement can also compile annotated lists of favorite reading or reference suggestions in their areas of interest or expertise. This could be as simple as updating readers’ advisory lists that are in current use. Another vital task for staff with decades of collection development experience is weeding the historical collections (especially the much-dreaded last copies). Now is the time to be sure we understand the logic of their decisions, the criteria they found most important to observe, and methods that have been most useful. This kind of information will help the rest of the staff understand why the collection currently looks the way it does and should help whoever inherits the retiree’s duties to focus on how to proceed in these efforts. Veteran staffers will best be able to understand the usefulness of older materials and to select those that will most likely continue to be useful in our rapidly changing environment.


Libraries should focus on the most important ties that librarians have developed over their careers. These relations are often wide-ranging: legislators, educators, media resources (reporters, editors, marketing staff), community and cultural organizations, librarians outside of your system, and donors. Mailing lists of program attendees are also valuable. Make sure these great ties to the community aren’t severed when the retiree leaves. Whenever possible, have the departing librarian introduce another staff member to an important connection personally, to guarantee a continued relationship with the library. These relationships can be extremely difficult to replicate or recreate, so don’t miss the opportunity to tap into a veteran librarian’s important knowledge.

It is essential to provide a place to pool the information gleaned from departing staff so everyone can benefit. We add this kind of information to our current staff intranet and are working on using a staff wiki to better share the details. Having one place to maintain and make this information available helps avoid duplication of effort.

Now is the time for us to provide a way to identify and preserve the valuable skills, knowledge, and community connections of outgoing staff and make this information easily accessible to newer librarians. Making a conscious effort to do so should be part of every system’s retirement process. As dramatic changes in libraries continue to accelerate, it is crucial to maintain the best of what your librarians have built—for the sake of your system and the entire library community.

AMY HARTMAN is an adult services librarian at Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library’s  Sylvania branch after having served 15 years as a humanities librarian at the Main branch. She may be reached at amy.hartman@toledolibrary.org.

MEG DELANEY is the manager of Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library Humanities Department. She may be reached at meg.delaney@toledolibrary.org.


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