By Meredith Farkas | March 2, 2005
So this week I’m all alone in the big chilly city of Chicago (hubby’s in New England on business). When, on Monday, I heard that there was a free conference being offered by the North Suburban Library System that week, I decided it would be a great to go and meet some fabulous Chicago-area librarians. The conference was called the Librarian Recruitment Conference and the specific session I went to was First Year Librarians: What They Didn’t Tell You in Library School and How to Deal With It. I was particularly interested in going when I saw that Ria Newhouse and April Spisak, the authors of Fixing the First Job were two of the featured speakers on the panel. If you haven’t read their article, it’s worth a look. They offer some interesting insights into how new librarians feel about the profession and their jobs based on research they conducted. They spoke at PLA in 2004 and were even invited to address the ALA Executive Committee.
The session exceeded all my expectations and left me feeling energized and more positive about the profession. Ria and April articulated the differences in our generation (versus the baby boomers) that really lead to conflict and misunderstandings. They also described many of the problems our generation of librarians share: that we are not taken seriously, that our libraries’ administrations are opposed to change, and that many of us are unemployed or have to settle for part-time work and jobs that pay too little to live on. It just felt nice to hear other people expressing the same frustrations I’ve felt. But what they did not discuss was something that I’ve wondered about for a long time: how do we (new librarians) get our fellow librarians to take our ideas seriously? According to the survey, so many new librarians feel like they have a lot to offer their libraries, but that their ideas are not listened to by the administration. We can complain about it until the cows come home, but what can we actually do about it?
For me, the best part of the session came when Yvette Johnson, a librarian at the Arlington Heights Public Library with decades of experience, talked about the conflicts between new librarians and their more experienced colleagues. She argued that librarians are doing a disservice to their library and their community if they don’t take new librarians’ contributions seriously. She said that things should naturally change as new employees are brought into the library. She suggested ways that experienced librarians can encourage new or potential professionals, including mentoring, tuition reimbursement for library school, taking on a student for a practicum, and having a structured and meaningful orientation program for new hires. She discussed how mentoring can go both ways, where experienced libraries have just as much to learn from the new librarians as the new librarians have to learn from them. And while Johnson was telling the administrators what they should be doing to encourage and retain new librarians, she also told us Gen-X’ers what we can do to be taken seriously. She offered us strategies for selling our ideas, including understanding how our ideas will affect everyone involved, to stick to one idea and see it through rather than offering dozens of ideas, and to respect the chain of command. We new librarians DO have a lot of great ideas of how to improve libraries and the profession, but it is sheer hubris to assume that we can come into our first job and change everything around. We need to consider the library’s culture, the patrons, the community, and how our ideas will affect all of the stakeholders. In most settings we aren’t going to be taken seriously initially, and we have to earn our credibility. That being said, there are some librarians who are so averse to change that our ideas will never be taken seriously by them. In those cases, I have no idea how to change their minds, and no one in the room seemed to either. They are the ones who would never attend a conference like that in the first place. Still, it was nice to see things from the other side, and to be reminded that we have a lot to learn from the boomer generation librarians too.
The most encouraging thing I got out of the session was the fact that the majority of attendees were baby boomers. I thought perhaps the session was going to be a nexgen bitch-fest, but instead it was filled with librarians in administrative positions who were genuinely concerned with retaining passionate new librarians. It was full of librarians who wanted to know how to encourage their employees and bring out their strengths. It was nice to talk to women who’d been in the field more than 20 years who wanted to know what was being discussed on nexgenlib-l (not so that they could spy, but so they could better understand the needs of our generation). After last week’s Gormangate, I started to feel like change was impossible as long as his generation was in control of libraries and the ALA. Now, I feel a lot more hope because I know that there are many experienced libraries who do embrace change and who will listen to us.
Plus, I made some new librarian friends! Certainly going there was a much better choice than sitting at home and missing my husband.