The Gray Flannel Suit

You know how when you watch certain old movies, it is very striking that Times Have Changed? You watch the classic movie with Gregory Peck, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and it’s so clear that it is about a style of life and work that doesn’t exist any more.  It is quaint. I’m starting to have a funny feeling that a style of librarianship is beginning to go out of style in a very generational kind of way.

In the field currently, we have people who began before the computer age. When I began at the Chicago Public Library, the card catalog was already gone, but the new catalog was delivered every few weeks on microfiche, which had to be loaded into the machine. My sons got to use old catalog cards from a friend’s school library to draw on, or to practice writing. The venerable, still-missed by many card catalog was almost gone at the beginning of my career.

So, many librarians have had to come a long way with technology, but generally it hasn’t been that painful because it developed gradually over our lifetimes. For some of the people retiring now, it may have been a little more challenging, being well-established in their careers and then along came computers. For for a lot of us, we have grown older and wider as computers have grown tinier and faster, but, we get it. Computers don’t scare us.

We have a new generation of librarians now who never once in their whole lives pulled out a catalog drawer. Where we have been all, “Wow! This new computer thing is cool!” they have been all, “Huh. This is cool but it could be so much better if it just did THIS.” Possibilities are visible to them that are frankly invisible to me until they are pointed out. These new librarians are awesome, and they are different in some big ways. I wasn’t so aware of it until recently.

There’s a librarian group on Facebook that I joined when I came across it–I’ll give you the name if you write me. And I love it–the conversation there is eclectic and adventurous, silly and thought-provoking. At one point an old-school librarian complained about the randomness of the group and wondered if it had lost its focus, and got lots of snarky responses. This group values their right to be nonsensical side-by-side with being inventive and thoughtful. To them, as far as I can tell, it is all the same. One of the conversations that provoked the old-school librarian had to do with Trapper-Keepers. Is that something you are going to go out and use in your library? Almost certainly not…but it’s something the millennial librarians were willing to riff on.

For me, 30 years into the librarian business, I feel like the best I can do is be a bridge between the old way of librarianship, which is serious and deeply committed to helping people find the information they need, and the new way of librarianship, which is frothy and also deeply committed to helping people find the information they need. I can keep attending Unconferences and Makerspace programs and trying my best to keep up on technology news, and if sometimes I feel like I am moving in slow-motion while the younger (usually, not always) librarians are zipping along, I will live with that. On my side, I do have a lot of experience with boring real-world stuff like budgets and liability and oh, yes…taking excellent care of patrons. And they, on their side, inspire me with their enthusiasm and creativity. It is a pretty good exchange.


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4 Responses to The Gray Flannel Suit

  1. David Gutteridge says:

    I started as a card-catalogue boy 50 years ago (the 1960s equivalent of children up chimneys) and ten years later as an undergraduate part of each university holiday was spent presiding over the so-called fish-fryer – a rotary card catalogue powered by an electric motor in the cat.&class. room at Chatham Library which sweltered in the summer and shivered in the witner because of the temporary buildng (put up to last 10 years and it actually served for 30+) and the long windows. A Librarian wishing to withdraw a book from the collection had to send it to me to have its two or three cards pulled from the mighty fun-fair ride of knowledge, and I had the jurisdiction to challenge the withdrawal and possibly send the volume to a zombie-world of Reserve Stock in the Central Store or propose buying a replacement.

    Now it’s all too easy for somebody to press a few keys and something vanishes off Spydus and into a black plastic rubbish sack,

    • sdlempke says:

      How very interesting! I’m afraid you’re right that things are withdrawn at lightning speed and without a lot of thought these days, all too frequently.

  2. Jane Halsall says:

    Thank you, Susan, for a quiet little piece of writing that explains how I feel about my career. And it’s not just that we, well, I am quaint. It’s that for twenty years all the glorious and innovative work I have done for my library, is now unimportant to the new staff. It’s “what have you done for me lately?” We must remember that the entire library community stands on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps giants with drooping sholders but we were there clamouring to put anime, comic books, graphic novels, computer games, and everything else we instigated, into the collection. I worry that the history of librarianship in this century will be some kind of footnote in a textbook somewhere. It has been a glorious time to be a librarian. Maybe that the best we can hope for is that we recognize the value of what our generation did – recognize each other and remember that we made a difference.

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