BackTalk: Ruminations After Retirement

By Herbert S. White

For those of you who've ever read anything I wrote or heard me speak - and I've done a lot of both - you know that I have always been a great follower of the recently deceased management guru Peter Drucker. Drucker predicted fearlessly that the profession with the most promising future was that of 'knowledge worker.' Isn't that supposed to be us? What happened?

What's happened is that we, as a profession, haven't protected the boundaries of our field as we should, even as less formally educated practitioners like plumbers and mechanics do. I only had the opportunity to work as a reference librarian for about ten years before I moved into full-time administration and teaching. But I still recall what I'd say when patrons would ask me how I had successfully answered their reference question. 'Why would I want to tell you?' I would say. 'I want you dependent on me whenever you have a question. That is my job security, isn't it?' Everyone understood, nobody ever argued.

Professional suicide?

Today, however, we seem determined to teach our clients everything we know, and I find that suicidal. Shouldn't we instead be teaching them what they shouldn't try to do on their own? Shouldn't we let them know where their brimming self-confidence, especially among students, is misplaced?

When I was dean at Indiana I was once urged to discipline one of my library students who was apparently earning a little extra money on the side by doing computer research for other students. 'Was her research good or inferior?' I asked. I was told it was excellent, indeed so excellent that it led the professor to be suspicious of his student. Whether the work was original or not was his problem, I told that professor. As for me, I was proud of my student and intended to tell her so, because what she did is exactly what librarians do.

We now hear and read a great deal about how some corporations, universities, and communities are no longer able to afford quality libraries. Every manager knows or should know that this kind of propaganda has been spouted at all times, good or bad. If it were really true, then, obviously, there must be a reduction in the quality of service being provided. If not, aren't we simply setting the stage for the next budget cut?

Make friends

Of course, everyone must pay lip service to doing more with less. It seems, however, no one except librarians actually does this. When police budgets are threatened, dire consequences are predicted and that seems to work. When a faculty line is removed, a school provides fewer courses. No one ever volunteers to add extra sections.

Yet, when our budgets are threatened, we promise to work harder so no one will notice the difference. Weren't we working hard before? Drucker put it simply: 'Make sure to reward your friends and punish your enemies.'

What upsets me most, however, is when professional librarians sabotage the future of their own profession and its new recruits by replacing professional library positions with clerks. Of course, we don't even have the guts to call them clerks anymore. Clerks, especially good clerks and well-paid clerks, are a crucial part of any staff. Yet, if there is no real difference in what they do and what librarians do, then what is the point of getting a professional degree? The first responsibility of any professional is to the standards of that profession, not to the employer. Go ahead, ask any doctor.


My chosen profession of librarianship, in which I worked for over 45 years, was good to me personally. It has afforded me a comfortable retirement. While I worked, I was elected president of two professional associations and served on the boards of two international bodies. I was named a full professor, even though I did not have a doctoral degree. Later, my position was made a distinguished professorship.

I also had the opportunity to write a regular column for Library Journal for over a decade. And seven years after my retirement, Indiana University brought me back to award me an honorary doctorate in humane letters, and that nomination was made by my librarian peers.

My concern now is for the librarians who follow me, particularly those who are just entering or contemplating entering the profession. I question whether they will have the opportunities that I had, and for that I don't blame outsiders and I don't blame circumstances. I blame my fellow librarians.

Author Information
Herbert S. White is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, Bloomington.

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