October 20, 2017

Listening to the Young: Be Open-Minded To the Next Generations | Blatant Berry

A late-night argument with my son Tom and a brief discussion with Christian Zabriskie, who wrote the letter “Condescending!” (Feedback), set me ruminating on the way our perspectives change as we age.

I got my first look at how differences in age impact our workplace interactions and views in the late 1950s, during my first library job at the small Reading Public Library (RPL), MA, in a bedroom community west of Boston. At that point I was not a frequent or heavy user of libraries, even in college. I came to that job carrying the clichés about libraries of that time.

The director, a quiet, scholarly man, held a degree in classics, which was of little use when he sought work. He added an MLS to his credentials and later urged me to do the same. The combination of LIS studies and work in that library quickly changed my view of both libraries and librarians.

The permanent staffers were older and held only bachelor’s degrees. Their idea of a library included a heavy dose of annoyance with users, especially the adolescents who invaded the library every day when the schools liberated them. Their most common response to the problem of adolescent disruption was to call the police to eject these unruly teenagers. The police were not busy in Reading and enjoyed the action.

After a few months, I was assigned the job of youth/reference librarian. The older staff were happy to be relieved of that task, but soon they told the director and me that they disapproved of my handling of the job, since I never called the cops nor ejected recalcitrant teens. They told us that the library had never been so noisy as when I befriended the high school set.

Besides their social interactions, the teens used RPL to do their homework and frequently asked me for quick ways to document written assignments or find information. Their favorite query related to how to use the indexes in books to document specific facts in U.S. history. It worked so well that the high school history teacher called on me one afternoon to ask if I was giving his students footnotes for their papers. He had never seen so much documentation. I explained about the index shortcut, and he accepted it with a certain resignation.

If I had been working in that library as long as my fellow staff members and hadn’t had the indoctrination of the MLS, I might have shared their dislike of youngsters and the disruption they bring to a reading room. Instead, those kids had become the most enjoyable part of my workday.

Today, at 83, I claim a ripe old age. So when I argued with my son, who is 40 percent of my age, my youthful encounters with minors came to mind. I even went to my computer on the way to bed, to test his ideas against mine on the web. I found that he was as right as I was, if not more so. It was a slightly painful reminder of what I had learned at RPL.

Older folks need to seek updates and a new outlook from younger people. This is not a new or particularly insightful message. Still, it is important to discuss what is going on in the world with those who are younger. It isn’t that our expertise and experience aren’t useful, it is just that as those individuals approach their own maturity, they have already tired of being given truths by the older generation. Besides, those truths are frequently incompatible with their current experience.

It is a lot like the difference between what I call the Bernie Brats (young enthusiasts for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders), and we old traditional Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton. Of course, I’m even older, a survivor of FDR and the New Deal. That probably makes my views irrelevant now. So it goes, as that astute philosopher Kurt Vonnegut said. Another great thinker, whose name escapes me right now, put it this way: “Listen to the young, they will win in the end.”

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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Comments

  1. StevenB says:

    First, I hope to make it to 83 (21 years to go) ….and some beyond that.

    Second, if I do, I hope I can still write something about librarianship that anyone working in the profession then would want to bother to read. Who knows if they even read and care about what I write now? I do plan to have retired from the day-to-day profession way before then, so I don’t even know if I’ll still be qualified to write about library stuff the way in which you do.

    Third, I have never felt the age differences so much as I have recently with the newer colleagues coming into the profession and the issues, concerns and research matter with which they are most interested. It doesn’t always resonate with me, but I think their enthusiasm for the profession and the changes they seek speak volumes for the positive, dynamic future of libraries. So I watch and try to learn.

    Thanks for reinforcing a message I shared a few years ago. A little reverse mentoring for us not-so-new-to-the-profession can go a long way.

    http://acrlog.org/2006/09/25/learning-from-the-new-generation/

  2. Gusty Indonesian says:

    Yes, I always listening …

  3. christian zabriskie says:

    Mr Berry, in our followup conversation I found you to be incredibly gracious and humble. I hope that I can model more of your tact and encouragement as I continue in the profession.

    I’d still like to buy you lunch and give you a tour of my library sometime.

    Christian

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