Multigenerational libraries

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the multigenerational workplace as it applies to libaries. Partially because my supervisor and I are looking into the possibility of proposing some sort of session on the topic for next year’s Maryland Library Association conference, and partially because, well, it comes up nearly every day at work in one way or another. On our staff of 34, only three of us (that I know of) are 30 and under. From what I can tell, there aren’t that many people who hit the age range between us and our parents’ generation (and several people here have kids who are in their mid/late 20s), so there’s not as much of a buffer.

With some people the 20/30+ year age difference is not an issue; with other people there have been some weird interactions, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if some of these things wouldn’t have happened if I were older. It’s not as prevalent as it was my first few weeks, but things still come up. For example, at a couple of recent meetings I was introduced as “our Millennial.” I understand that the term is being used to indicate a young, tech-savvy person, but from most of what I’ve read, Millennials are the people right behind me — today’s middle-schoolers up through college students (ish). Lumping me in with them — even if it’s just a shorthand to describe me — doesn’t really help me break down some of these age-related issues. Those of us born in, say, roughly 1978 – 1984, don’t neatly fit into the Gen X or Millenial categories, and there really wasn’t anything (I think) that Gen Y could coalesce around. I think sometimes in getting so caught up in “the generation gap” we forget that people don’t neatly fit into these boxes. I have plenty of friends also born in 1980, and you couldn’t use “Millennial” as a descriptor for all of them, because not all of them are (or even want to be) that tech-savvy. So to me, that means there must be a better shorthand to indicate “young, tech-savvy person.” Like maybe just saying “she’s quite tech-savvy” and letting the fact that I look young speak for itself. Hehe.

In any case, this issue came up again while I was listening to the podcast of a fantastic presentation at GSLIS this spring. Stephen Abram presented “Reality 2.0 – Developing your learning strategy for life after Grad School.” The talk wasn’t quite what I expected based on the title, but that doesn’t even matter. He ranges all over the place, talking about the issues and trends that have affected, are affecting, and will affect those of us who are entering the profession now. It’s a long podcast (89:12) but the audio quality is great and it’s thoroughly engaging. I really wish I’d been there to see this. Anyway, part way through (around 52 minutes) he touches on the multi-generational aspect of the profession right now:

How do we build a culture of cross-generational mentoring? . . . Right now, because of the nature of what’s happened in hiring in libraries, we have a single or a double generation gap between the generations, so there’s not a natural mentoring piece. . . . People who are good at developing wikis and bookmarks and that sort of stuff and would benefit from having the knowledge of people who’ve been doing it for years come into place —  that creates an unbelievably powerful alliance. Now the trick is, to get my colleagues at my age to stop treating the new libarians as their children because that’s the model they have in their head. You know it’s love it’s warm, it’s meant one way, but I understand it pisses off people who are 25 to be treated as a child. Or people who are coming new into the profession to not have the skills that are fresh respected, because they [senior librarians] don’t understand what the skill is . . stuff that’s different that wasn’t in my education, I learned it afterwards.

I think he hits it right on the head. There don’t seem to be all that many opportunities to form a sharing/mentoring relationship here — one that can go both ways. I sometimes wonder if some people have sort of run out of energy for encouraging new librarians, or if they see that we are inexorably giving ourselves over to technology, and they’re resistant of that and so have shut down.

It’s an interesting thing to think about, because how do you really change that? I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot I can do on my own, at least in the particular situation in which I find myself. If people aren’t open to changing things, I don’t think I can make them do it just because I think it can be done better. For example, without the years of experience in instruction and curriculum design, I’m not really sure what to do to improve a lesson that just does nothing to engage the class, but doesn’t throw the tenets of the learning theory underlying the whole thing completely out the window. And without someone with that experience to collaborate with, well . . . what do you do? Make changes based on suggestions that come across a listserv, and hope for the best? That doesn’t seem like a good path.

Anyway, this is obviously something to chew on for a while. I don’t think this issue will be disappearing anytime soon, because from where I stand, I don’t see the “wave of retirements” that’s supposed to be coming.

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One thought on “Multigenerational libraries

  1. The generation gap in libraries is really a problem, yeah. I’m lucking that in my current position the entire department is roughly my age, but that’s a rarity. I’ll be very interested in reading your thoughts on this issue as time goes on.

    And it is really frustrated that a) people insist on dividing people into neat, orderly generations and b) there isn’t one for us. We’re really at the cusp between Gen X and Gen Y.

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