February 17, 2018

Comparing Boomer and Next-Gen Library Leaders: More Common Ground Than Expected | Leading from the Library

Steven BellMillennials and Gen-X librarians are moving into leadership positions. In what ways are they different from their baby boomer predecessors? OCLC did some research, and the results are insightful.

There are two things about the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Chicago that I remember quite clearly. One is the blizzard that rewarded me with an unwanted extra day’s stay in Chicago when my flight home was canceled. The other is an OCLC program that would warm the heart of any librarian who studies library leadership. Among the events for January 31 I found “OCLC New Library Leaders: What They Crave and How They Work.” I really had no idea what to expect walking into this program, but it mentioned “Library Leaders,” so I took a chance. It rewarded me with some new insights into the behaviors and generational differences of library leaders. The presentation was based on a 2014 OCLC research study exploring the career motivations, professional needs, and interests of librarians. What the presenters shared was a comparison of seasoned, mature leaders with their next-generation counterparts. One of those presenters was Irene Hoffman, executive director of member relations at OCLC. She, along with Lynn Silipigni Connaway, PhD, senior research scientist at OCLC, agreed to answer some of my questions about the study, which has yet to be released as a published report.

About the Survey

Librarians were surveyed in two phases. The first randomly sampled librarians who use OCLC services and a group of librarians identified by OCLC staff as emerging leaders. The second targeted librarians through various library school and leadership program Listservs and social media. In total, 771 librarians responded, about half of whom were academic librarians, and more than a third were public librarians. The respondents were divided into two groups by age: those 35 and younger and those 36 and older. While the data is described as “preliminary,” the findings got the audience thinking and probably led to more than a few new questions about who our leaders are. We heard about why leaders sought out leadership positions, career goals, and mentoring; how the two generations use social media and think about skill acquisition; and their perceived top challenges. Now that a few months have passed, I reached out to Hoffman to invite her to tell us more about what OCLC learned about library leaders.

How did you arrive at the “35 or younger” and “36 or older” split as an analysis point?
The initial analysis of the data indicated that years of experience did not reflect major differences in the sample; however, when comparing librarians by age—35 or younger and 36 or older—the data reflected some interesting findings. About half (49 percent) were younger than 36 and about one-quarter (24 percent) were older than 35, and a little more than one-quarter (27 percent) declined to answer.

What surprised you about the data as you conducted your analysis?
Prior to collecting the data through the survey, we anticipated some major differences between this new generation of leaders and their predecessors. Instead, what we found surprised us. The 35 or younger group and the 36 or older group have more in common than we had imagined. The similarities include reasons for becoming a librarian, their goals for participating in library leadership programs and continuing education, and how they stay informed [about] library-related information.

Perhaps we can explore some of those themes more closely. For example, what did you learn about why respondents become a librarian?
Both groups had similar reasons for becoming a librarian. The top factor influencing that decision…is that libraries allow me to apply my strengths. The respondents used words such as personal strength, values, compassion, and service. Here are some example comments:

  • “Librarianship is a profession that allows you to be compassionate and help others discover their own success on a daily basis” [35 or younger ]
  • “Librarianship is a service industry, and I feel a great deal of pride and satisfaction from helping others” [35 or younger]
  • “Librarians help people with what they need to make their lives better and life experience richer” [36 or older]
  • “Librarianship fit both my strengths and my values in terms of supporting education and having a meaningful profession” [No age provided]

A difference is that librarians in the 35 or younger group reported that using and sharing the latest technologies was a factor influencing their career choice.

What are some of the reasons given for why they participate in library leadership programs?
Three quarters (79 percent) of the respondents participated in library-related professional development or continuing education courses. A third (34 percent) of the respondents currently are participating or have participated in library leadership programs such as the ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Libraries or the ALA Emerging Leaders program.

Common reasons included to develop further their skills/education, to expand their professional network, to bring new skills to their library, and to advance their career. The top goal for library professional development and continuing education courses is the same as for leadership program participation: to develop further skills/education. Other top goals include to increase expertise in a new area and to bring new skills to my library.

Respondents in the 35 or younger group are more likely than the older respondents to participate in leadership programs to expand their professional network (55 percent vs. 37 percent) and to advance their career (53 percent vs. 33 percent).

What resources do these leaders typically depend on to stay well informed?
The top sources all respondents rely on for library-related information are email, social media, discussion lists, websites, and blogs. Two sources of library-related information top the list of sources used by respondents: communication from individual colleagues in email and social media or discussion lists. Blogs are slightly less popular as a source for keeping up.

The 35 or younger respondents are more likely to rely on websites or blogs, while the 36 or older respondents are more likely to rely on in-person or virtual events, library professional journals, library-related consortia or cooperatives, and special interest groups for their area of specialty. The boomer administrators definitely show a preference for more traditional “keeping up” resources.

What strategies did respondents think would help them advance to leadership positions?
A quarter (24 percent) of the 35 or younger respondents plan to advance to a leadership or director position in the next five to ten years. A third (32 percent) of the 36 or older respondents plan to remain in their existing role but continue to learn.

About half of the total respondents indicated they need to have discussions with other professionals to learn what is possible (51 percent), to achieve greater networking opportunities (48 percent), and to obtain mentoring/coaching (45 percent). The 35 or younger respondents were more likely to feel they needed better networking opportunities along with mentoring or coaching. This is another area in which the Next-Gen and boomer leaders were not that different.

What are the topics or trends the respondents thought were most important?
More than two-fifths of total respondents indicated new and emerging technologies (44 percent) and innovation and future trends (44 percent), while a third reported analytics, assessment and evaluation (35 percent) and strategic management and administration (35 percent) as helpful professional development/continuing education topics. Both age groups pointed to the importance of learning about new and emerging technologies while staying up-to-date with innovations and future trends. Where they differed is that the 35 and younger group focused on advocacy and marketing, while the older group was more concerned with strategic management and administration.

What other finding do you think is of interest to share?
One area in which the groups differed was in their outlook for the profession. The earlier career professionals tended to demonstrate less optimism about their future role in libraries. More of the 35 and younger respondents than the older group  (49 percent vs. 31 percent) believed that libraries will be valued about the same, while the older group (47 percent to 39 percent) believed the library will be more valued.

Can the library profession look forward to seeing a report based on this research?
Probably not. We did this research as an informal study to first see if the results warranted a larger research focus. Since then, we have decided not to publish this as an OCLC report but rather to use what we’ve learned to align the needs of this audience more fully with programs and initiatives that will be beneficial to their career development. Our organizational focus is on developing a continuum of learning and professional development opportunities that begins with the education of new professionals, supports them as they transition into the profession, and provides them with opportunities for leadership, generating a strong and ongoing pipeline of well-educated and well-prepared leaders poised for the future of our libraries. For early career professionals, we offer the Jay Jordan IFLA/OCLC Early Career Development Fellowship and the OCLC Diversity Fellowship programs and access to webinars, seminars, and forums on trends, topics, and current issues within the profession.

More Alike Than We May Think

I want to thank Hoffman and Silipigni Connaway for taking time out of their hectic schedules to respond to my questions about the new library leaders survey. There is no doubt that newer colleagues are coming into the workplace with different perspectives about their role in the world of professional librarianship. It’s encouraging to learn that at least a quarter of those surveyed see themselves moving into more formal leadership roles in the future. In some ways the leadership research conducted by OCLC supports some of the assumptions we all make about generational differences in our profession. The big takeaway is that even though we are separated by our generations, librarians representing different age groups are more alike than we may think. There is a common bond in our desire to serve in a profession dedicated to caring about and compassionately helping others in our communities that brings us together despite age differences. That is fertile ground for all library leaders to do their work in advancing the good work their libraries do.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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