March 20, 2018

Are You Really NextGen?

By Katherine Furlong

At first it was just a stray gray hair or two, easily ignored. Then came the human resources training session, and the realization that I was in an EEO age-protected category. Finally, I was reading LJ‘s NextGen column and realized that I couldn’t relate. In fact, I was a bit annoyed by its tone and attitude. I started to get huffy. And then it hit me. I am young at heart and have an aptitude and a facility for change, but maybe I’m reaching the end of my NextGen status.

As a proud Gen Xer, I am, by some accounts, a NextGen librarian [defined as part of either Generation X (born after 1965) or Generation Y (born after 1979)]. When I started in librarianship, the management literature was full of articles on supervising Gen X staff, on how to motivate us, how to keep us happy, and how to harness our creative power. I remember wishing I could anonymously pass them along to my library director. No one is writing about Gen X as a problem any more; we’re becoming the bosses.

In fact, despite my alleged NextGen status, I’m in my third full-time job as a professional librarian—now an associate director. The revolution is here; I’m a NextGen member of management.

Generational difference

As management, it’s my job to listen to and advocate for the new, innovative thinkers, to make sure they have the tools and support to get their jobs done. It’s also my responsibility to stay on top of trends while guaranteeing that we don’t lose focus on current issues while frantically running after the Next Big Thing. I have a Post-it® note on my computer monitor that reminds me that attitude and aptitude define our relationship to change and technology, not age or generational differences. But there are certain things that do separate the new from the old(er) librarians.

To help others of my generation recognize certain signs, I offer the following:

You know you’re probably not a NextGen librarian:

  • if you’ve ever filed an actual paper card in an actual wooden card catalog
  • if you ever put an animated GIF on a homepage because it was "cool"
  • if you once thought that PINE was the best email client ever
  • if you remember teaching AltaVista as the "next big thing" in a library instruction session
  • if you ever booted up a computer using an audio cassette tape
  • if you have fond memories of your first exciting moment of searching PsycINFO on SPIRS
  • if you long for the days of 3,2,2,1 derived searching (and you know what that means)
  • if you ever checked in a periodical using a Cardex
  • if you ever had training on OCLC/PRISM (especially on a WYSE terminal);
  • if you genuinely prefer the term catalog over the trendy discovery interface
  • if you are really, really annoyed by tweets
  • and, finally, if you were old enough to buy a ticket without an adult guardian when the film Party Girl was theatrically released in 1995.

If you don’t see yourself on this list, congratulations, and welcome to Libraryland. You are our future.

Not really NextGen

If you do see yourself on this list, it may be time to start looking to the next generation for leadership on new issues. You probably need to make a more focused, concerted effort to keep your own technology skills and knowledge base up-to-date while preparing to take on more of a management role in your library. The very same Gen X traits that probably drove your first boss crazy can now be your greatest asset. Gen X employees are flexible, responsible, enjoy learning new things, and thrive on giving and getting feedback. By now, you should have developed a whole repertoire of skills that can help you manage and focus the enthusiasm brought to your organization by younger librarians.

I know what you’re thinking: making sweeping generalizations about populations is dangerous. Labels are something to be avoided at all costs. Thinking that because someone is younger they’re better with technology is as bad as thinking that because I was born in western Pennsylvania I can sing and dance to the Pittsburgh Steelers Polka. In truth, I do know the words, I can dance the polka, and, to be honest, I prefer the 1970s version that mentions Mean Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain. I still enjoy watching Troy Polamalu and the 21st-century team, but I now have the experience, knowledge base, and perspective to be a better football fan and a better library manager.

If you’d like to add, amend, or dispute this list, please share your thoughts. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s the NextGen thing to do. Because I for one have actually done everything on the list, maybe we all need to rethink the definition of NextGen, or come up with an entirely new term for the next-NextGen librarians. Or maybe, just maybe, we can all embrace change, listen to one another with respect, eschew labels, and simply call the new innovators in the profession librarians.

Author Information
Katherine Furlong is Associate Director for Access & Administrative Services, Skillman Library, Lafayette College, Easton, PA.

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