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Career Strategies for Librarians
Can’t We All Just Get Along?: Bridging Generation Gaps in Libraries
by Samantha Silver

The Phenomenon

When I started graduate school, I spoke with a few seasoned librarians about the future of our
profession.  They told me that they would be retiring soon and that the job market would open its doors
to young, vibrant employees like me.  Now, here it is, six years and one MLIS later, and they remain
employed.  What happened to the Occupational Outlook Handbook’s prediction that the millennium
would bring an influx of young librarians and a decrease of traditionalists?  Somehow it seems that the
exodus date keeps being postponed, yet library schools keep educating professionals and sending
them to libraries with new skills and techniques for helping connect patrons to information.  When I
attended the CLA conference last November, four generations were represented.

As modern medicine improves, people have more energy, better health, and more drive; they would
rather work at something that they enjoy than retire just because it is expected of them at a certain age.  
As an added benefit, younger librarians can glean inspiration from the elder generations’ experiences,
their determination, and their loyalty to the profession.  It seems to me that librarians of all generations
should be able to share ideas and thoughts in a reciprocal manner, without barriers.   

The Problem

A major conversation stopper occurs when people speak of generation-specific events and get
sidetracked into the realms of nostalgia.  The fact is that Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers
and Millennials grew up during different time periods and have different memories.  These differences
often cause conversations to stop, thus leaving librarians to clash in head-to-head conflict, neither side
willing to concede that a different approach would work more effectively.  In particular, weeding and
technological updates are areas that instigate conflict.

Each generation is shaped by its socio-economic, political, military, and educational background.  As
time progresses and history changes, generations are influenced by war or peace, poverty or wealth, job
scarcity or abundance, and varied educational opportunities.  Traditionalists saw the development of
Social Security and became loyal and trusting toward their government.  On the other hand, Generation
Xers watch the erosion of these measures and wonder if they will have a better chance of seeing a UFO
in their lifetime than receiving a Social Security check.  Thus, Gen-Xers have grown cynical and self-
reliant.  Baby Boomers, a crowd of eighty million people all vying for the same top-level positions, put
extra emphasis on innovations and on working longer hours to achieve the top of the top level of
management and to be recognized for their individual achievements.  Meanwhile, Millennials, a group
nearly as large as the Boomers, have so many varied interests that we see them striving for greatness in
multiple fields, taking on many different jobs at once.

The Solution

Every generation has the ability and skills to connect in a constructive manner.  All librarians have
studied at the graduate level, researching, discussing practical application of theories for better services,
working with the public or with the intricacies of cataloging.  Everyone is entitled to offer an opinion and to
join in the give and take of library organization and management.  After all, we all have the same ultimate
goal: meeting the various needs of our library patrons.

Respect and Common Courtesy

Respect has no age limit.  Everyone deserves the same kind of courtesy as the next person.  When the
twenty-something librarian wants to weed the collection, try not to question her judgment.  Sometimes it
is necessary to remove old books and periodicals from the collection if they are worn to the point of
fragility or contain information so old that it is no longer relevant to the library’s clientele.  It is not that the
younger librarians are thumbing their noses at the materials that the elder librarians amassed; they are
devoted to fulfilling the information needs of the patrons.  Consequently, Gen-Xers should not need to
present a 20 page treatise every time they wish to weed the collection.  

A possible solution to expelling materials from the library completely is to maintain an archive.  
Depending on budgets, this can be an elaborate or simple affair.  Historical materials or popular
memorabilia that have served the library’s community in the past can be stored in archival containers in
a back room.  This way, the older librarians do not have to give up papers of interest or the 4th copy of a
book that has not been used in years, yet the library can be filled with more up-to-date additions to the
collection.

Communicate and Listen

Before implementing technological changes such as new OPAC systems, virtual reference, e-mail, or
research databases, it is wise to communicate with the entire library staff.  Hold meetings to address
concerns regarding the need for these changes; discuss how technology can be a boon and make one’
s job easier.  Don’t wave off “we’ve always done it this way” arguments.   Listen to what the librarians are
saying; for example, keeping up some form of paper cataloging system makes sense in the event of a
total system crash.  E-mail can be difficult to learn, but once mastered, it speeds up communication and
connects people and ideas more quickly.  Empathize – learning about technological advances takes
time, but can make our work more efficient.  Plan training sessions that include the entire staff – from the
pre-typewriter set to the post-live journal librarian.  Everyone can use a refresher course, a chance to
practice what they already know and to enhance what they do not yet know about computer systems.  No
one should be left out because they don’t know enough or don’t understand why change is necessary.  

Patience and Tolerance

Don’t expect librarians with minimal knowledge of computers to learn new software programs with the
ease of the Internet generation.  On-screen typing and mouse clicking are not second nature to all.  Be
patient while teaching and offer periodic murmurs of encouragement.  “You’re dong fine” and “Exactly
right” work wonders for the self-esteem of an uncomfortable computer user.  Giving up in disgust when a
Traditionalist cannot grasp the concept of right clicking her mouse does not bridge the generation gap –
it drives colleagues further apart and makes the workplace terribly territorial.

On the subject of the Internet, Google is great, but it does not have everything.  Sometimes, librarians
new to technology wish for instant answers from the Internet.  This is not always possible – there are
ways to formulate searches and connect patrons to documents and books, but the Internet is not
infallible.  Of course, neither are print based materials.  Sometimes the material that a patron needs
cannot be found at your library and it is necessary to direct them elsewhere.  This is NOT a reflection on
the quality of a generation’s librarianship, but a reality of life.   

Traditionalist and Boomer librarians need to be more tolerant toward the younger generations.  They
have not been in the field as long as some and are learning the ropes of management, supervision and
general library work.  Library school does not teach us everything we need to know; it is the practical, on-
the-job day-to-day experiences that build our knowledge and skills of librarianship.  Younger librarians
deserve the same chances to achieve as seasoned professionals.  Give them the same opportunities
as you would one of your own generation.

The Goal

In order to make the library a happier place for staff and patrons, librarians and paraprofessionals, we
need to bridge generation gaps with communication, patience, and respect.  We need to share ideas
and experiences openly so that no one feels left out because they are “too young” or “too old.”  Try to see
multiple sides of a situation: why is the Traditionalist hesitant to weed, while the Gen-Xer is eager to toss
anything not technologically viable and the Millennial is interested in tweaking the “broken” machine so
that it can function in any way possible?  They have all grown up with different histories shaping their
environment.  They see the world with different eyes and thus have different skills.  Honor these
differences and allow everyone to contribute to the quality of the library and information needs of the
patrons, which is the ultimate goal of any library.  And, when in doubt, consult When Generations Collide
by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman (2003).  This work, dealing with everything from retention to
rewards, should be considered the bible of generational conflicts.

About the Author:

Samantha Silver is a Generation X/Millennial Cusper.  She currently works as a General Services
Librarian for Mount St. Mary’s College, where she is the youngest librarian, in the areas of reference,
cataloging, and bridging gaps.  

Article published March 2005

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