Please note: We are not the new generation

My generation is called Generation X, but I’d like to start thinking of us as the Silent Generation 2.0, because the world we found is similar in some ways to what the Silent Generation found, and because we are pretty quiet. We don’t make a lot of noise about what our generation represents and what we want to do differently than the generation that came ahead of us. The Baby Boom generation really likes the spotlight as a generation, and that’s okay. We have learned and continue to learn a lot from their performance.

As time goes by and we enter middle age (I’m 41), I and some others, however, have started to feel like speaking up as a generation. I don’t find this easy, because I think it’s unsavory. I would like generational conflict not to exist. I think it’s an ugly form of opposition, as oppositions go, because I think relations between generational groups should mostly be about learning (in both directions).

Usually when I speak, I don’t feel that I am speaking as a Generation Xer, so much as an observer of what exists who came on the scene after most of the people who are doing the talking did. But there is something I want to say as a Generation Xer. Probably only this one thing.

What I have to say is, please notice that a decade has gone by since we were the new generation.

I got my MLIS when I was 31, ten years ago. At that time, my cohort was the first group that came through library school after the World Wide Web had suddenly changed everything in a big way. This meant that we naturally had a different perspective from people who had gone through library school just a few years before. It also meant that we had the same teachers (whereas many of us are now teaching today’s library students, and my favorite teachers from library school are all retired or deceased).

We were talked about as the new generation of librarians. I remember being interviewed for an exciting and colorful website called “New Breed Librarian” that Juanita Benedicto and Colleen Bell created. That website made a big statement at the time. It disappeared from the web several years ago.

The idea of a next generation of librarians that began at that time has since persisted and morphed, but today I am officially too old to be a part of the now-existing Next Gen Librarians group and listserv. I am also too old, as well as too experienced, to be a part of a number of other groups and initiatives that are about the “next generation.” There is indeed a next generation of librarians, but it is two generations removed from the Baby Boom generation that still does most of the talking. While we’ve been talking about the “next generation” there have in fact been two “next generations.” (This may be part of the reason we’re talking about Web 2.0.)

Lately, I have been tolerating a lot of really annoying discussion that refers to the difference between the Baby Boom generation of librarians and the new generation of librarians in such a way that my generation seems pretty much left out or lumped in with the Millennials. (As an example, take a look at Stephen Abrams’ recent pair of open letters to “the two generations.”)

In a way it is not surprising. We have been quiet as a generation, and we are smaller in number in the profession than the Baby Boomers. But our numbers are not so small as to be insignificant. We are present in libraries and are often in management level positions. We also have a perspective, given our experience in library school with both an older generation of teachers and a world of new technology, that allows us to serve as an institutional bridge between the old and the new.

So, what I would like is to ask Baby Boomers to distinguish us, in your thinking, from the Millennial generation. Don’t lump us together with them as the new generation, because we are not the same generation. And please don’t dismiss us as slackers with punk attitudes. I think our attitudes have been misunderstood. I think we tend to be thought of according to the way we acted in late adolescence. Having had time to mature, I think we now tend to offer practicality and realism, as well as efficiency, where as young people I think we were displaying a natural reaction to what we were presented with. Having thrown off the weight of a difficult cultural situation, as now not-young adults I think we can best be described as quietly driven, a fact which Baby Boomers don’t seem to have noticed.

The past ten years have gone by in the blink of an eye. I want it to be recognized that my generation is no longer new.

9 comments on “Please note: We are not the new generation

  1. I think about this when I hear all about “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants”; I once wrote an email to a friend where I picked apart a scholarly article explicating these two and declared myself a “First generation digital native”, asserting that the 1970s and 1980s in which I grew up were also a “digital age”, if a primitive one.

    I furthered this analogy comparing it to the historical American immigrant experience, and therby asserted that as first generation digital natives, we still spoke the language of the “old country” (books-based librarianship), respected its traditions, etc. The last card catalog I used was in High School, and I used an amber-screen NOTIS based OPAC when I was a college Freshman.

    I never saved that email, though it would’ve made good blog fodder, and I may try to re-create someday soon.

    I went to library school fully expecting to become a Reference Librarian when I became slowly convinced of the importance of cataloging, and alarmed at how few of my classmates were going into the profession seeking jobs as Catalogers. I decided to take as many cataloging courses as I could and to devote my practicum to a semester with a technical services department of an academic library in my then hometown (Houston), and sought out other volunteer opportunities to work in libraries in tech services related areas.

    I don’t yet have a full appreciation for the deep theoretical aspects of Cataloging, like people who deeply understand Seymour Lubetzky, etc. At most I can say I’m a big fan of Sandy Berman and Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford, all of whom were deeply influential to me in library school. But I am alarmed by much Libr/Web 2.0 (already up to Web 3.0 in some quarters) rhetoric that seems so dismissive of cataloging and makes statements that indicate such folks clearly don’t understand cataloging or its importance. Luckily there are still many experienced old school catalogers around able to mount a rousing defense of what we do and why, but they won’t be around forever, and I feel trepidation at the thought of having to fill some pretty big shoes.

    I’m still new to the profession (just a little over 1 year total professional experience yet), having gotten into the Library game a little later in life after I soured on earlier ambitions to become a professional academic, and also gave secondary education a try (hated it), then landed a good, if ultimately dead end corporate gig for awhile. I’m not that old (age 37), but I know I’m no spring chicken any more either. A headline in THE ONION captured my exasperation by saying it all a couple of months ago: “1998 was TEN *#&@( YEARS AGO!!”

    I’m basically doing my best to learn and absorb as much as I can about cataloging, trying to do my part to ensure continuity and minimal disruption. I think older catalogers are sometimes a little to restrained in their subject heading choices, a holdover from the card-based days, but on the other hand, with catalogers my age and younger, sometimes I think we go a little overboard in the other direction.

    I wouldn’t mind user-tagging, or new fangled “discovery tools”, IF there was an option to toggle these things OFF and confine myself on purpose to just the library catalog, showing me just those books that are in just this building…because if designers rob me of this choice then they are definitely not going to “save the time of the user” (Ranganathan).

    I worry about the development of RDA and the fact that some things may be getting tossed overboard that should not be, and I hope that those of us catalogers at academic research libraries will be able to jump in if LC “drops the ball”, as it often seems on the verge of doing lately.

    I think cooler heads will prevail, and we’ll see more MARC-XML crosswalking (and less MARC MUST DIE idiocy), and I’m very hopeful about the future development of Open Source ILS’es as an opportunity for Catalogers and Systems librarians to take back ownership of the OPAC away from traditional vendors, and relegate vendors to more of a subordinate customer support role. We can preserve the best of the old and add on the new bells and whistles selectively in a responsible way that is not destructive of traditional library tools.

    I had some inkling of the distinctiveness of my generation recently when I made a joke referencing the movie OFFICE SPACE and everyone close to my age (everyone currently in their 30s) got it, but older librarians and younger library assistants didn’t.

  2. Rory:
    I hope people do read my columns better than you did so see that GenX was included in the new colleagues column and absolutely and specifically not ignored. I don’t believe that GenX is whiney, slackers or ignored – although there are fewer of them demographically. Please don’t take two of my articles out of context (out of over 300 columns, books, presentations and articles and more and several specifically on succession planning)and position my work as examples of someone somehow disrespecting or ignoring an entire generation. If you can’t be accurate, you could at least try to be fair. If you want to make a point and you want to use my name, get it right.

    BTW – positioning your generation and yourself as silent or quiet is laughable.


  3. Hi, Stephen

    I apologize for getting your name wrong. I had a friend when I was a kid with the name of Abrams, so it comes to mind.

    I didn’t mean to imply anything about the way you think about Gen Xers. I was not referring to you but to discussion in general, but I can see how you might take it that way, given the organization of my post.

    As far as your objection that your letter to the new generation specifically includes Gen Xers… This is actually what I’m talking about. I don’t like my generation being lumped together and treated as the same phenomenon as the Millennial librarians. We’re different. Even though you take some care to acknowledge the difference, it’s one letter, with one implicit audience. The Millennials and the Gen Xers are not the same audience. I would have been very happy to see separate letters for us – it would have been very refreshing. I didn’t mean to single you out, but I just happened to run across these letters at the same moment I was thinking about this problem.

  4. As a Gen Xer currently in library school with both Millennials and Baby Boomers, I find it frustrating to always be lumped together with the Millennials. (I look very young and I’m often mistaken for someone in my 20s). I have 12 years of full-time work experience under my belt, and I didn’t choose this profession because I couldn’t find a job with my English degree and M.F.A.–although admittedly there is a certain appeal to a steady job with benefits when you’re 35 years old. I chose this profession because I want to help people directly. I feel that my experiences (work and otherwise) bring something to the table of librarianship. I value what Millennials and Baby Boomers have to offer, but I feel that Gen Xers bring a unique perspective–one that is often overlooked. We grew up watching and waiting. We were latchkey children. We were the products of divorce. We were the children born during and after the Vietnam War. We spent large portions of our formative years alone (in front of the television) because our parents were working or self-destructing. I agree that we are a quiet and small generation. I suspect that as a generation we want to build something stable and strong for ourselves and our profession. I look forward to what we will (together with Baby Boomers and Millennials and the generations to follow) create.

    Thank you for posting this, Rory.

  5. As someone who is not only from Generation X but someone was once obsessed with the notion of Generation X, I share many of the feelings you brought up in this post. Thank you.

    Every time some *boomer* (snicker) on stage starts waxing about the inherent technological genius of their ‘digitally native children’, I have to take a deep breath and make sure my teeth aren’t on edge. I grew up with video games (Atari 2600), word processing (Apple IIe), email and chat (since 1990), the hivemind (usenet) and social software (bulletin board systems). It’s no big deal.

    IMHO, while there admittedly are some differences in outlook due to when you are born, the changes we are seeing are being driven overwhelming by technology – not by personality.

  6. I am also 41, with a foot in both generations, but belonging to neither. I remember when there were no personal computers, and I am highly competent with technology. Gen X is distinct, and I identify with it more than with boomers or millennials. Gen X has tended to be silent and hardworking. Thanks for breaking the silence. Good post.

  7. Hi Rory

    Thanks for this post.

    As a fellow Generation Xer. I was educated in traditional Library Science and Information Science as an undergraduate.

    My professors are also either retired or not with us anymore. Even the Dept. that hosted the degree course has changed its name and no longer teaches Library Science.

    Having worked in libraries for more more than 10 years now, and seeing both the print side and the digital side, I too believe that our Generation should be the bridge between Print and Online, between the Generation before us and the ones behind us.

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