There has been much talk in the library world and beyond about generations. We are attuned to generational differences when it comes to our patrons, how they learn and use libraries, how they navigate the overloaded information landscape. In the hushes of our faculty meetings and hallways, however, we sometimes talk about millennials and Gen Y with an air of dismay, ambivalence, or even disdain when it comes to their digital, phone-obsessed, tech-loving ways.
So, it comes as little surprise to me that I tend to be met with a certain measure of dismissiveness when I use the term “next-generation librarian” to describe the kind of leaders I want to attract and develop at The Collective (a new kind of professional development event I co-founded with Corey Halaychik) and to see thriving in academic libraries.
First, people often assume that next-generation has to do with youth; age, however, is not a prerequisite for being awesome, embracing change, or thinking forward. Next-generation pertains to the next stage of development or version of our profession; there’s no expiration date on participation save an individuals’ decision to assign themselves one.
Second, there is an unhealthy and prejudicial stereotype that those who embrace technology wholesale do not appreciate the analog or the “traditional” library values. I’m not sure if this comes from a lack of exposure to tech-savvy librarians or a fear-based tactic to defend a Luddite’s value in the institution, but we should celebrate how mad tech skillz and core librarian values are not an either-or. Indeed, we when choose to hire candidates who have both, the rising tide lifts all boats and nobody drowns.
At our best, I have seen how we can celebrate how much next-gen librarians improve our services, creativity, and research outputs. At our worst, we dismiss them as somehow not “real” librarians and stagnate our organizational growth and learning.
So, I’m on a crusade to redefine what we mean by next-generation. The next-generation librarian is a concept that transcends the traditional generational boundary of tabloid research and listicles. Not defined by birth year, next-generation is about a mindset, a disposition, an outlook.
Next-gen librarians are:
Less change averse, more risk embracing
They are not threatened by new ideas or technologies; they are willing to experiment, test, and fail.
They are not afraid of being pushed out of the workforce—they hope to reinvent it—and as such are constantly training up. They may be more mobile and willing to change jobs based on the climate of the workplace.
More likely to be hybrids, blended or feral
They range from advanced career librarians pursuing JDs to better meet user copyright needs to young professionals choosing a career in librarians rather than Silicon Valley.
Citation counts don’t cut it; they want to see their work have meaning in the communities they serve in tangible ways. They believe libraries are curators, creators, and collaborators, not simply service-providers.
Leading from the middle
They are pushing the profession forward by starting programs and initiatives without necessarily being in traditional leadership roles; they create opportunities rather than waiting to be tapped or moved up on the organization chart.
So, to sum up: next-generation is:
- An attitude, not an age.
- A willingness to learn, adapt, and evolve, not a particular skill set.
- Seeing the librarian’s role as more than service.
- Asking “How can we try that?” instead of “Why should we do that?”
Given the qualities above, it might seem daunting to attract, develop, and retain next-gen librarians, but it shouldn’t be so. In fact, many of the opportunities that next-gen librarians need and desire are what managers and administrators should be offering anyway if they want to steer a healthy living and learning organization. I would encourage administrators to:
- Provide professional development opportunities, internally and externally. It can be expensive, but there are many low cost initiatives, such as THATCamps, Library Juice Academy courses, and subscriptions to Lynda.com….and, whenever possible, create opportunities to attend more expensive options such as HILT, DHSI, etc. Furthermore, use individual skill-building to build towards an overall re-skilling program for the library.
- Consider internal working groups or skill-building programs. This is an essential step in cultivating a culture where having a single digital humanities or digital scholarship librarian does not mean others are “off the hook” for using technology to enhance their research and service.
- Support from above and below—allow for middle leadership. Create opportunities to lead projects and groups, start initiatives and programs, and build managerial skills through supervising student workers, graduate assistants, and practicum students. Giving leeway with low-level supervision and managing small budgets has the added bonus of grooming a next-generation of qualified managers and administrators who have on-the-job experience.
- Acknowledge and reward risk-taking, from good work to good failure. It’s hard to put yourself out there and maintain a next-gen mindset and energy if those individuals feel they will become pariahs for presenting outside-the-box ideas or conducting cutting-edge research.
- Create room in your cultural climate for new ideas and viewpoints, including dissent. Sometimes library departments lean towards attracting like-minded, introverted, not rockin’-the-boat types. Remember: civil disagreement and constructive criticism is collegial, too! If there’s no conflict or debate in your faculty meetings, you’re stagnating.
- Commit to invisible forms of diversity. We can’t always see difference—be it socio-economic, veteran status, or disabilities. Diversity in thinking and learning styles, thought processes, personality, disposition, and problem-solving is equally an asset to your organization, just like the forms of visible diversity we have come to appreciate and value.
If you’re doing all of the above, I doubt the term next-gen will ruffle any feathers. You’ll have probably already moved on to the next big thing…