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The Tao of Law Librarianship: Reaching Across the Generations in the Profession

By Connie Crosby, Published on December 17, 2006

Traditionalists, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, mentally checking off which apply to me, co-workers and friends. I have particularly enjoyed talks by LexisNexis' Gayle Lynn-Nelson, since she puts all of this into the context of law librarianship.

From these sessions I have learned that I am one of those people "on the cusp" between Baby Boom and Generation X. And I do identify myself as Gen-X. I don't have a lot of respect for authority, but still I want to work my way to the top. Is that contradictory, or what? I thrive on change and get bored if some aspect of my work is not giving me new challenges. I am also reluctant to identify myself with older Baby Boomers who have been through a whole set of life experiences I have only heard about from music and television.

Wherever you fit within the generations "scheme", you have to agree that while many of the observations are true, we are all still individuals. And as such, we still need to get to know each other on an individual basis to work together. We share some basic needs. We need to be wanted, we want our work to have some value, and we want respect. Regardless of our generation, we still need people with vision to set our course and lead the way, even if the leadership style varies.

I'm definitely not suggesting we just ignore differences between generations. Rachel Singer Gordon, in her 2005 Library Journal article "Generational Journeys" calls this the "age-blind failure" and points out: "...communication gaps are more likely to spring up when we try to pretend that generational differences do not exist. They do, and when we suppress concerns and ignore differences in communication style and outlook, we end up reinforcing the very negative stereotypes we try to avoid by taking an age-blind approach."

Whatever you read about changes in generations, whether you think Generation X is going to lead or whether we are going to skip straight to having the next generation, the Millennials, in charge, one thing is for sure: things are going to change. The "command and control" world of Traditionalists has its days numbered, and the Boomer ambition to work long hours and let family and personal life fall by the wayside just cannot be sustained over that many decades. Can it?

John Berry in his 2004 Library Journal article "Memo to Baby Boomers" talks about it in terms of "letting go". He says that Baby Boomers have to stop being so much in control and telling the next generations how to do things:

"Letting go means showing respect to these new librarians, their styles, and especially their ideas about how we can improve library service. More than respect, it means developing receptivity to the onslaught of the new generation. It means letting go of the need to tell them how they do it wrong, how we tried their idea years ago, or how we solved that problem long before."

Berry puts the onus on Boomers to be open to younger librarians and offer themselves up as mentors. It's a shame this has to be pointed out. There were times, on my road to becoming a librarian, that I felt those already in the industry I met were trying to dissuade me from going to library school, who for whatever reason were just plain negative. I was always grateful for the few who encouraged me: the public librarians I worked with as a high school student, the special librarian in my father's workplace, the senior administrator in my university library, the librarian who hired me when I first started working in law firm libraries, and innumerable colleagues since that time. If I hadn't had so many positive contacts to outweigh the negative ones, I doubt I would be where I am today.

I feel very strongly that our up-and-coming librarians, be they undergrad students trying to find a career, library students trying to find their niche, or new law librarians getting their initial footing, definitely need our encouragement and sometimes our words of wisdom. We need to be honest about subjects like work stress and difficult clients; however, we should not dissuade them if they have a passion for the work. We should listen to their ideas since sometimes their fresh approach can show us a new direction. And we all need someone to believe in us.

Conversely, Rachel Singer Gordon in her earlier 2004 Library Journal article "Get Over the "Graying" Profession Hype", instructs younger librarians to respect the experience of those before them, and not expect older librarians just to step aside in retirement:

"Tout your own contributions and accomplishments, but don't make the mistake of thinking that older librarians lack their own. If we enter the profession with the belief that we have nothing to learn from older librarians, they will be justified in their own stereotypes about Generations X and Y having little to offer but trouble."

I concur. Most of my colleagues and friends are older than me. Many have pioneered new roads in work and in life, and show me what can be done. Rather than dismissing them out of hand because they are not necessarily my age, I try to listen and learn. And I have a learned a lot. They have become my role models and--in some cases--my heroes.

In addition to our own attitudes changing, we are also soon going to see our employers acknowledging, if they haven't already, that work-life balance is important to all workers and professionals. They have to realize that our "Next Generation" librarians are not going to give their lives over mind, body and soul to an organization.

I have already seen this attitude shift start to have a positive effect. Whereas ten years ago I would work until 8:00 p.m. (in a 9-to-5 job) with little notice, I now feel quite comfortable leaving the office at 5:00 p.m. It is no longer a matter of expecting everyone to work overtime to get the most work done, but instead finding ways to work more efficiently as a team so that everyone can get away at a reasonable time. That's got to be a good thing, no matter how old you are.

Additional Sources:

"The Millennial Invasion: are you ready?" Information Outlook (Nov 2004) by John J. DiGilio, Gayle Lynn-Nelson.

"You Walk with Your Walkman; I Run With My Ipod: The Challenges of Multi-Generational Teaching" by Gayle Lynn-Nelson

Generations at Work (website)

AALL GenX/GenY Caucus (website)

NEXGENLIB Google Group
for "NexGen" (i.e., Next Generation) librarians

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.