Further Questions: What are your thoughts on age?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is from Twitter:

A reader asks: “What are your thoughts on age? How open or closed are library hiring managers to women over 60? Thanks.”

I add: To expand this a little, please give us your thoughts and observations for any folks who are worried about their age (older, younger, or in the middle) affecting their ability to get hired. Any tips for strategies to mitigate bias?

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: This is always tricky because we have a natural tendency to think about age even just looking at a resume or CV. I have noticed more and more that people leave off the degree granted date on credentials which can be effective although including dates of previous employment still provides some indication of age. In some cases I think it depends at least in part on the position. If someone is applying for a more senior position that requires experience then I would expect candidates who are older. I think it is interesting that the reader specifically mentions women over 60. I’m assuming the reader is a woman but I also wonder if more women have concerns over age than men.

We need to move away from making assumptions about age based on information we receive in documentation. Not everyone goes to college at 18. Not everyone who is over 60 looks like they are (or under). We can ask every candidate about how their prior experiences inform their thinking about this new opportunity. And about what they hope to accomplish. Given the departures from my library over the past five years I’d say a colleague in their 30s or 40s is just as likely to consider leaving as someone over 60 might be to retire. I wonder if the reader with the question meant the question of how long she would stay in a job, or whether she is still able to do it well. In 30 years I would say ability and interest have much less to do with age than any number of other factors

Anonymous: This is a question that has been much on my mind of late. Of course, an institution is best served by saying nothing when a candidate does not make the cut. What I have noticed, however, is that before I turned 60, which was on the eve of the pandemic, I was a valued candidate and could get an interview within a month or two of starting to look. I was published and a sought after national speaker on Information Literacy. There was no obvious problem with qualifications.

After I turned 60, I get crickets, even for jobs that I might have been over-qualified for.

To be fair, that might be part of the problem. Librarianship seems to have this weird thing going that if you want to step back from a top-leadership position to something with less pressure but doing something you love seems to be inconceivable. I was, in fact, told by a colleague and friend who was a college library director, “if, after being a director, you wanted to go back to being a public service librarian and the pay cut, we would probably want to know why.” It was suggested my candidacy would be a hard sell to voluntarily step away from administration. It is somewhat frustrating since if I were asked, I would tell them that I didn’t mind the pay cut. I can afford it, I want to go back to doing what I loved, and you would get an experienced public service/instruction librarian who was pretty damn good at what they did.

Is that age discrimination? I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Dr. Colleen S. Harris, Librarian, John Spoor Broome Library, CSU Channel Islands:

TL;DR: Yes, discrimination against older women applicants exists, but there are some ways to combat it.

This is a good question. Our most recent dean is a woman over 60 who the University-level committee hired, and is a dynamo of energy and advocacy; I’ve seen this a lot in libraries from our older colleagues. When I’m on a search committee, I look for the best talent and most potential—the balance of these shifts just a little depending on the position in that an early career growth position can be written in such a way that it attracts those with passion but not much experience, while a position requiring skills we need immediately applied might focus more on factors of experience. You should be able to tell by the way the position is written. I think women over 60 can (and do) easily market themselves with the vast amount of life experience they have compared to younger or earlier-career applicants.

If you have this concern as an older applicant, I would consider the following – all with a dash of salt, of course, because they’re largely drawn from my own experience as a search committee member. Some of these will seem silly and “of course don’t do that,” but after seeing cover letters where these things happen, some do/don’t/depends tips to not knock yourself out of the pool prematurely:

  • Do: concentrate on the position and how it is written, paying careful attention to those bullet points of requirements and responsibilities. Focus on what you can bring to that position and institution in terms of your previous experience (both library and non-library), professional development and/or passion. Most of the committees I’ve been on actually use the position description’s bullet points as their candidate rating rubric. Focus on bringing as many of those as you can into your cover letter without sounding stilted. Nota bene: the committee WILL NOT scour your CV/resume for details related to those requirement bullet points, you have to do that labor in your cover letter. Even if it’s a brief mention of how you meet the requirement and then a “more details on my responsibilities in my CV,” it helps you.
  • Do: focus your labor on the important documents: especially writing that cover letter, and the diversity statement. Your CV/resume is very rarely the make-or-break document.
    • N.B.: Your cover letter is the key to the kingdom, at least in academic searches I’ve been on in the library, in other academic departments, and when I’ve been on search committees for administrators (CBO, CFO). This is the space where you can make your age work for you in terms of experience, demonstrated learning over time, mentorship of younger or earlier-career colleagues, and broad skill set development.
    • N.B.: The diversity statement…very often these are very terrible. As in seriously terrible. As in, “I like diversity and have Black friends” terrible. Take some time to really sit and think about the prompt (they vary slightly by institution) and offer a meaningful answer. (If you have one, if you don’t you should reflect on that, too.) If you are an older applicant, you again likely have more experience to draw from in terms of approaching how your philosophy of librarianship has changed over the years (if at all), how your teaching/management/coaching style has changed, and how you can actively exploit the benefit of your age in terms of length of learning curve and practice in this area.
    • N.B. for applicants of all ages: if an institution says the diversity statement is required, it is required as a separate document. And we mean it when we say required. If you do not include a diversity statement, you are out of the pool (at least at my current POW). Even if it’s an optional document, consider it required. It’s important. In the past decade I have been on a committee where an applicant loudly and in print refused to submit a diversity reflection statement.
  • Don’t: say that you want the position at that institution because you want to retire in the area or because you want to live in a particular city for [insert non-library, non-institution reason here]. The institution and committee likely want to hear how you will be engaged as their employee and colleague, not focusing on ending the job before you’ve even gotten it. (That may seem obvious but it has happened in many a cover letter I’ve read for librarian searches as well as searches for faculty in other departments I’ve served on.)
  • Depends: Related to the previous, a more gray area is mentioning if you have family/children/grandchildren in the area. Some committee members will see this as a bonus in terms of locking you in geographically and likely keeping you for longer than folks without ties in the area, but it can also backfire because to others it will sound very similar to “I want to retire here.” Unless your family is somehow directly related to your professional experience (lots of practice at storytimes as a grandma, for instance), I would leave them out. Focusing on the professional is the safest bet, for the most part. (There are good ways weaving in family can be done, and some folks will say I’m wrong here. My focus in this answer is to advise as best I can how to maintain a strong presence in the pool and impress each committee member as much as possible. I lean towards a “Don’t” on this one because I hesitate to give bad actors any ammunition against a candidate, but I’m also mindful that we bring our whole selves to work, with all of our intersecting identities that inform our experience, and those intersecting identities are relevant to the ways in which we work with people and do the work. I wrestle with this one, and I’d probably land at “have multiple someones read over your cover letter to make sure everything is oriented to how you can benefit the institution in that position and how the institution can benefit you” (good advice for applicants at all ages).
  • Do: indicate how you are keeping current in the profession, especially in the area of the position you’re applying for. It’s illegal to discriminate based on age, but we know it happens, and the listed degree dates on your CV/resume or other parts of the application can bring age to a bad-actor committee member’s attention. If you can very briefly address how you have kept current on your knowledge of whatever the position is, that gives other committee members an ace in the hole if a member brings up the date of the degree and indicates an age bias by claiming that someone’s education may be “out of date” for the needs of the position.
  • Do: be confident in your application. At 60 and over (heck, at 40 and over), you have a wealth of life experience under your belt even if that experience isn’t in libraries, and much of that may be relevant to the position you are applying for. I think of my mother, who didn’t work until later in life, but managed a scratching-to-lower-middle-class household of five with one income for 20 years doing all of the budgeting/invoicing and reconciling, arranging for transportation for multiple actors to all different places, ensuring 3 squares a day, doing building maintenance, handling vendors (doctors/health care, the oil company, the electric company, cable, etc.), researching to save costs (the reams of coupon fliers she went through weekly), dealing with cost ebb and flow (new school clothes in August, presents at Christmas)…

Headshot of Kathryn Levenson

Kathryn Levenson, Librarian, Piedmont High School: Great question on age. For school libraries, you need a teaching credential before getting your Library credential and MLIS so most people would be older.

I was getting tired of all the work that went along with being a biology teacher, prepping labs, etc. I felt like I could perform Library duties under less stress into older age. I have been at Piedmont High School for 6 years now and am about to turn 64. I plan on working at least another 3 years.

The previous Librarian had been there for 13 years and was retiring. I interned at Berkeley where the main Librarian was probably in her late 60’s and she hired a replacement in her 50’s at least.

When I was hiring an assistant, I considered temperament and ability to work with high school students over any concern for age. Both of my assistants had teaching experience of some kind and ties to the community. There are many active Librarians in their 60’s, in my experience.

I would encourage older candidates to apply providing they can push the carts and lift boxes at times. But, if your Library uses high school teaching assistants, that will relieve much of the physical part of the job. I also had a very active middle school TA program at my previous library.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System:

What are your thoughts on age?

When approaching an interview, someone older may make a terrific employee. While there may be physical requirements which would eliminate someone, a specific age does not determine an employee’s ability to physically do a job.

How open or closed are library hiring managers to women over 60?

At my library, we hire women (and men) over 60! What older applicants, of any gender, need to avoid is giving the impression the job is “just to get them out of the house” or “give them something to do.” And especially, an employer does not want to get a sense the applicant wants the job as a way to “cruise to retirement” in a short time.

To expand this a little, please give us your thoughts and observations for any folks who are worried about their age (older, younger, or in the middle) affecting their ability to get hired. Any tips for strategies to mitigate bias?

When applying and interviewing for a job, regardless of age, you must demonstrate an interest in the employer and the job, a belief you have something to contribute of value, and NO expiration date. Too often, applicants show little interest in the job, have little idea what they can do for the employer, and give the impression this is only a temporary “gig” for them..

Headshot of Angelynn King

Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College: For the past 15 years, I’ve worked in small academic libraries in rural locations. I’ve served on numerous faculty search committees, and I’ve never heard the advanced age of a candidate discussed or even alluded to. This may be a function of the applicant pools being somewhat shallower in the country, but it’s been my experience that if you’re qualified and enthusiastic, we’re willing to consider you.

Once a member of a committee I chaired said of a young, single applicant that she’d “probably just get married and move away.” I reminded her that we absolutely, positively could NOT take that into consideration. We ended up hiring the applicant, and she did move away — but later she married a guy she met in a nearby town and moved back! So that just goes to show you…something.

Anonymous: My system does not require age information in any application process, but work experience and expertise mean that age is not completely removed from view. Internal policy is to offer openly based on whether or not certain education requirements or expertise requirements are fulfilled. In practice, level of experience can sometimes affect whether or not we look at an application. If someone has a ton of experience and are used to working in multiple library systems, but are applying for a library intern position, we will likely pick a less experienced candidate who may benefit more from getting their foot into libraries. When we’re dealing with librarian level or just more challenging positions, expertise is actually seen as a benefit. So I think this comes down to making sure you’re aware of the kind of position you’re going for and not underestimating your experience.

One issue that I see come up in hiring processes is that librarianship now requires a lot more technical skills. Making sure that that is clear in your resume is honestly more important than anything else. Showing that you know what modern librarianship means is really what’s important. As an example, we actually passed over a younger internal candidate for a position because an older candidate with more experience and a better vision for the position had applied.

If you’ve been in libraries for a while, you probably have a good idea of trends. Take advantage of that long-term vision and make sure the hiring manager can recognize it too

Christian Zabriskie, Executive Director, Onondaga County Public Library: It’s all about the energy. I had a colleague who referred to herself as “the resident Q-tip” because of her white bobbed hair. She had the highest energy, the best attitude, and the most drive of anyone in the work group. Bring your best to the interview, talk about something new you read that you think would work well. Don’t make excuses for yourself in your head when you interview. “I hope they overlook X” is going to make you feel like whatever X may be, it is the only thing that matters.

Older folks who have been in the profession for a while will want to show that they are up on new ideas and are not going to be doing a stale storytime. Younger professionals will want to show where they have shouldered responsibility. Stereotypes stink but people bring them to the table so make sure you are covering yourself. If you are going for a position with leadership responsibilities it is important to show that you are around for a period of years. This is less of an issue for front line work and part time desk/cataloging coverage work, those are longer term skills that are fairly interchangeable between libraries and locations so lean into your flexibility and classic reference chops.

I once had a new hire ask me what my policy was on tattoos in the workforce, my reply was “they are not required”. Show your best genuine self and that energy and conviction will shine out in your interview.

Thanks for reading! We’d love to hear what you think!

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