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Preparing to Close the Door and Turn Out the Lights

15 Oct 2014 8:00 AM | Deleted user

After creating, merging, or fixing close to 50,000 bibliographic records and processing some 15,000 interlibrary loans, I'm ready to hand the Hartland Public Library over to someone else. My wife retired in May and is taking care of our first granddaughter, a job less stressful and far more fun than her having to ride herd on a couple hundred nursing students. My body and my brain keep telling me I should follow suit, so I've set next June 1st as my final day as a full time librarian.

If you look around at any gathering of Maine librarians these days, you're likely to see more gray than any other hair color. Tonight, I had dinner with several other Tri-County librarians at Pat's Pizza in Dexter. Two retired this year and at least one more is thinking about it. I doubt these statistics would be much different in similar informal gatherings of Maine librarians these days. Let's face it, fear of economic inadequacy has kept/keeps many of us working beyond a personal comfort point, but we're getting a tad long in the tooth.

I'm writing this because I've spent a lot of time thinking about some of the emotional and intangible aspects of retirement and want to share what I've concluded. Maybe none of it will be useful or of interest to you. I hope for some, the opposite is true. I very clearly remember a syndrome that was common when I worked in inpatient mental health. Plenty of people were like my good friend Jon M. who looked at me one day when we were duck hunting and said: “When I'm not working, there are times when I have no idea who I am.” He was dead serious. So many of us who worked in mental health put so much of ourselves into the job that it became as much who we were as anything else in our lives. As I've worked to make the Hartland Public Library the best possible library I could, I've realized that some of that has carried over. While what I've created is pretty darn good, I know that on June 1, 2015, it's no longer my baby and part of my job between now and that day is to ensure that I'm as okay as possible with that. To get there and remain sane, there are a number of things I've decided I need to do. I'm sharing them with you in hopes that one or more of them might be helpful when you make this important decision. I list them in no particular order.

1-Patrons, particularly in a small library have a comfort level with the librarian, the collection and the environment. It's important to reassure them that whoever takes over will be caring and competent and will have gotten some tips on who likes what. They also need to know that nobody is irreplaceable and that someone else's style of operation may be just as satisfying after the initial adjustment period is over. This attention to patrons needs to happen with all ages. Teens, tweens and little kids have just as much investment in the library as adults.

2-Sharing your prejudices with your successor isn't going to help anything. Face it, we all have patrons who irritate the hell out of us, often for reasons we can't put our finger on (I had three of them in the library at the same time this afternoon). Sharing those with whoever takes over might derail a productive connection for everyone concerned.

3-Take time to write as thorough a handbook as possible. Remember how you felt when you first took over. Things like who empties the trash, mows the lawn, handles the plumbing, what E-rate is all about and who to call. Create a list of important phone numbers including other libraries. If you have special relationships with particular libraries (like we have with Newport and Pittsfield), explain them in sufficient detail. If you have go-to people for certain things like cataloging, add them to the handbook. Include volunteers you use regularly and if they have a particular skill, note it. Explain things like how ILL and the van delivery work. Your successor may already know all this stuff, but taking the time to create a handbook will make you feel good about what you've done and may spark an idea for something you completely forgot.

4-Leave them a list of who loves what author so they can surprise a few patrons early in the game.

5-Leave them another list of people you think would make great library board members or trustees. Remember, you didn't work all those years just to have some idiot get on the board and screw everything up.

6-Decide what level of availability you're comfortable with. In one person libraries like Hartland, finding capable substitutes isn't always easy. Are you willing to fill in when your successor gets sick or has a vacation and nobody is available to cover? Likewise, are you willing to volunteer in some capacity, assuming your successor is okay with that?

7-Brainstorm a list of things you never finished or quite got to. You'll feel better and hopefully your successor will appreciate having a direction to go in once their feet are wet.

8-Decide what stuff you really need to bring home and what you're comfortable leaving behind.

9-Realize that no matter how much time and effort you put into these things, like everything else in life, you're going to realize it's incomplete at least half a dozen times, so cut yourself some slack. Being human isn't a crime AND you're getting older, so brain slumps go with the territory.

Now for the emotional stuff. This is the tricky part of this process. I come home on days when I have a volunteer helper to let the family dog out. Lately these warm October afternoons make it extremely difficult to go back to work. That book I couldn't quite finish reading last night and the chair on the back deck really look more inviting than returning to the library and calling people about overdues. Developing an emotional detachment from the job and doing so gracefully isn't particularly easy. If you catch yourself being grumpier more often and for longer periods of time, consider the source. Likewise for that less than enthusiastic getting out of bed to greet another day of work. If you're like me, some mornings, those covers look pretty darn sexy, especially compared with the knowledge that you'll have to deal with 25 interlibrary loan requests as soon as you fire up the computer.

Another area that has the potential to become a slippery slope is the mental shrug. Sure the day when everything will become someone else's problem is approaching, but until that day, it's important to keep things in balance. On the other side of this coin, don't throw away vacation time just because retirement is approaching. I have 85 hours left this year and I'm using every dang one of them.

Perhaps the trickiest issue, for me, at least, is achieving a feeling of okayness about not being part of the library. Until I actually retire, I won't know whether I'll get up in the morning and be looking forward to a clean slate for the day or fighting a feeling that I'm no longer relevant. I'll get back to you on that one.

Finally, what, if anything will you carry from your library job into retirement. While I plan to read my brains out and amp up my writing career, there are still parts of being a librarian I really like, enough so I want, or think I want to keep doing them after June first. I've got four things on that list. I'm considering hiring out as a freelance weeder for librarians/libraries where killing their babies is too painful. Second, I've really developed a liking for cataloging, particularly original cataloging, so I might offer my services one day a week for libraries where lack of staff creates a serious backlog of stuff that needs to go on the shelves. Third, I've heard from a number of people that having someone willing to hire out as a temporary library professional to cover unexpected vacancies or illnesses for short periods of time would be very well received by the library community. Finally, I'm willing and interested in continuing to handle the sales of items on Amazon for the Hartland Public Library. I'm good at it and that would free up whoever replaces me to focus on some of those things I never quite got around to doing.

I hope you found this interesting and maybe a bit helpful. I'd very much like to hear your thoughts about this article and retirement. 

John Clark, Hartland Public Library

Maine Library Association

55 N. Main Street, Unit 49

Belchertown, MA 01007


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