21st Century Librarian Profession


While watching “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” last night (current 30-minute daytime version with Meredith – DVR’ed of course), my wife and I watched in bewilderment as three young contestants in a row, all between the ages of 27 and 22 (conservative guestimate), bombed out before they got to the $25,000 safe level – because they used up all their life lines! I’m sure most people understand how Millionaire is played, so I won’t get into technicalities, but we were both amazed at the questions these young people did not know.

As an example, one of the questions (remember the first five are so simple that they are considered common knowledge GIMME questions to get to the $5,000 safe level) was: (paraphrased) “Instructions on most common hair products state “wash, rinse” and what?” In all fairness, she was the youngest contestant who had to ask the audience for help on that question, and found out that 97% knew the answer is REPEAT! Wash, rinse, repeat! (I won’t even get into all the ramifications of why a young person might not “know” that bit of common knowledge.)

If what most observers say about Gen Y Millennials is true, that they are “generally considered the “Trophy Kids”, due to the “everybody’s a winner” approach to group activities, and as a result tend toward generational consensus building, like to work collaboratively” (my post of Feb. 17 – 21st Century Patrons – Generation Y, the Millennials), then that may explain why these young contestants were so uncertain about what over 95% of the audience knew – on the question they each referred to the audience! Their confidence comes from collaboration. So, what happens when they are left on their own to problem solve? Not very successful. They were also given questions that most people (at least Boomers in my opinion) could have figured out by simple deductive reasoning, but they had to resort to a life line. (Yes, I know it’s always easier sitting at home than sitting in the hot seat.) Another observation about these young people is that they were not risk takers.

I couldn’t help but think about Jason Dorsey, “The GenY Guy” and his plea that “BabyBoomers, please never retire. You have all kinds of skills that we don’t. My favorite – long division.” And he is SO right, there are generations of knowledge among librarians on the brink of retirement that these younger Millennial librarians will never know, if we don’t pass it on. That’s the point of this post. We librarians have to learn to work together across these generation gaps in order to pass along the institutional and professional knowledge that we have to the Millennials that think it’s not important because – if they don’t know it – they can Google it! GONG! Wrong Answer!

Just in case there are some of you who have not yet been introduced to Jason Dorsey, you are in for a real treat!

If you watched all of Jason’s 10 minute video, you learned a lot about Gen Y people in the workplace. And, you got some good laughs, but this is actually a serious situation, mainly because people are serious in the workplace – especially Boomer and GenX librarians. Librarianship is serious business. We have to preserve the history and culture and literacy of humanity – all by ourselves! Don’t we?

All those self-actualizing issues aside, what we need to do is preserve the profession, in whatever form it takes in the 21st Century. We – ALL OF US – Greats, Silents, Boomers, GenX, GenY and whoever follows – MUST recognize that we are first and foremost the guardians of the librarian profession.

Our librarian ancestors are the ones who actually worked hard to make librarianship a “profession” when other professions did not want to recognize it as such. Our librarian ancestors are the ones who built academic programs for librarianship at the masters level. Our librarian ancestors are the ones who designed the classification and cataloging systems we use today. Our librarian ancestors are the founders of ALA and other worldwide organizations that support libraries and librarianship. Our librarian ancestors are the ones who created the great libraries of the world, and the small community library that still operates in that 100-year-old Carnegie building.

We in the profession today are the ancestors of the 21st Century librarian, and we must all work together to help shape this century of librarians, help identify their librarian place in society, and determine our librarians future. So, let’s talk. Let’s figure it out. Let’s do something besides debate the same old questions decade after decade. PLEASE – let’s have state, regional and national conferences that are more than resurrected programs from 5 or 10 years earlier. Let’s develop some 21st Century thinking. Let’s have some 21st Century dialog. PLEASE!

10 Comments

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10 responses to “21st Century Librarian Profession

  1. Doug Gould

    While I wholeheartedly agree with most of my friend and colleagues post on today’s blog, I take exception to our primary mission as 21st century librarians to defend the library profession, per se. Now, before you misconstrue my comment, let me hasten to clarify: our primary mission is to defend–as professional librarians–mankind’s right to free and open access to information. We, as library professionals, are the guardians of man’s accumulation of knowledge, and–as professionals–seek to help organize and facilitate access to that knowledge. But I refuse to defend the library profession. Having said that, I advocate professionalism amongst librarians. But the profession, itself, will either stand or fall based on its own merits. If found worthy to stand, it will survive; if found–by the majority of the public we serve–to be unworthy to stand, then fall it may. And what might cause it to be found unworthy? It’s worthiness is a moral judgment, you say. Precisely! If the profession continues to support a liberal agenda regarding intellectual freedom, etc. then it should be found–in the court of public opinion–to be unworthy. But this is not a forum for discussing the liberal agenda, intellectual freedom, and so on; so, enough of my “soap box” moralizing for now.

  2. I guess my friend and colleague missed the sentence that read: “All those self-actualizing issues aside, what we need to do is preserve the profession, in whatever form it takes in the 21st Century.” I would never advocate that librarians’ “mission” is other than he outlined so well, but I do think what librarians need to DO, in addition to pursuing our mission, is to preserve the profession – in all it’s best characteristics. Actually, Doug and I are not far apart in our opinions of the best, as well as less laudable, facets of the librarian profession. I chose to take a proactive approach to shaping the 21st Century librarian profession based on our ancestrial heritage of preserving “mankind’s right to free and open access to information”, rather than let it stand or fall on the fickled finger of fate the public wields.

  3. Kay Dee

    Your points are well stated! And wouldn’t it be refreshing to see new conference ideas!

    Of course, the rub? That would require a fundamental skill that is no longer taught…critical thought.

    You know…that handy skill that helps in all walks of life. Instead, as you so clearly pointed out, young people are taught “collaboration”. As a 30-something, I find that today’s student collaboration looks suspiciously like yesterday’s cheating. Remember the days when they made us scoot our desk FURTHER apart or even better…TURNED them away from each other? Now you are hard pressed to find a classroom where the desks aren’t bunched together. Where some see the progress of education, I see something more like the Borg Collective.

    So how does this translate to the profession and today’s workforce? Well, personally I have always found that critical thought is an individual activity while dependency and committee runaround…now THOSE are Olympic-worthy team sports!! We have waves of new faces entering the work place who only understand team sports.

    When left to their own devices, as so often occurs in that pesky real world, they come up short and looking around for their “life-line” or “phone a friend”.

  4. I always enjoy hearing from the “field”. I assume as a 30-something you are a GenX, a “Digital Immigrant”, and a critical thinker from the sound of it. I’ve had my concerns about exactly what you describe. Apparently, Partnership for 21st Century Skills is attempting to change that lacking in the next generation of Digital Natives. Guess you’ll see how that turns out, since I probably won’t be around by then.
    Thanks.

  5. The problem is not a dichotomy between collaborative and critical thinkers – it’s whose involved in the collaborative thinking and what is being done to instill critical thinking among those involved.

    For instance, if the audience was a homogenized collective of the contestant, it would be no more a help than if the contestant guessed herself, right? (because the audience also would not know the answer and would have to guess themselves).

    The reality of the past 1/2 century or so is that we take young people and made them learn things together as a group under the wing of paid professionals. Before that, there was more apprenticeship-style learning. Young & old learned together more frequently. There were more community supports to help everyone get through the bad times.

    These days separation exists in all categories. Elementary school kids learn with elementary school kids, and much is done to ensure they don’t mix with the junior high kids. Same with high school and college. In the workplace, we see this as well. For instance, the tendancy to get younger employees to be involved in ‘innovative’ activities.

    There are benefits and costs to this paradigm. One cost is the failure to transfer certain kinds of knowledge. (You may notice that many modern shampoo bottles no longer have the ‘repeat’ instruction, as this has been declared an obvious ploy to get people to use more shampoo). While the trivia on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ aren’t really employable skills, the failure is concerning.

  6. greebie,
    Thanks for your comment.
    If I understand what you’re positing, there is no distinction between collaborative effort and development of critical thinking skills? That young people working together to answer questions or solve problems is equally as effective as each of them answering and solving on their own?
    I guess I’m old school enough that I tend to agree with Kay Dee that so much collaboration in answering questions and solving problems sounds a lot like what education considered “cheating” 20 years ago. My skepticism of “collaborative” learning is based on my personal experience with collective (what it was called back before the collaborative label was applied) learning in which the few “dominant” (for want of a better term) personalities in the group, whether it be simply their personality or their knowledge, shaped the learning for all. The lesser capable or motivated learners simply rode along with the group and exerted little personal effort to learn or contribute to the group.
    I hope 21st Century Skills in education will change that, but human nature is what it is. Just like there appears to be those librarians who care enough to put themselves out in the line of fire and posit their ideas and experience, while there are many more who chose not to, or care not to.
    It’s interesting you should reference the “Millionaire” audience, because just last night (we DVR the daytime shows to watch as a before bedtime entertainment break) it struck me that one can almost predict the average age of the audience simply by the percentage of the response on the questions. Almost every question a contestant refers to the audience for their opinion, either my wife or I know the answer (not trying to brag, just a fact). Generally, the audience majority will range from 60-some% to 98% who know the answer. Based on our own age and experience we calculate the audience’s age. Last night the audience responses were generally lower percentage than usual who agreed on the right answer, so we guessed the audience age to be about 30-ish. I agree, the marketability of Millionaire trivia is virtually nil, but the loss of general knowledge is concerning to us, and maybe that’s just a generational thing that’s as incalculable as global warming.
    I’m not sure your characterization of the apprenticeship-style learning is totally accurate, because way back then, there was little if any “young and old learning together”. The old were the experts, and they expected the young to listen, learn and do as their elders told them. Ever hear the phrase “Children should be seen and not heard.”? That was the way it was. Apprentice teachers were hard task masters – emphasis on Master.
    I’m certainly heartened that today elders are receptive to younger employees being involved in innovation. Technology has changed a lot about our society, both good and bad, but innovation and advancement are areas that I think everyone recognizes requires openness and willingness to change, and adapt.

  7. No no no no. When I said homogenous I meant literally homogenous – like the borg – as in all of the people in the audience are the exact same person.

    My point is that both diversity and critical thinking are important to the collaborative process for any age group. I think we are too quick in this society to discard those people and things that do not match us (for whatever reason).

    Re: apprentice-style learning. The best way to learn has always been to teach, so the old were learning too, task-masters that they were. The pay-off in the apprenticeship case, of course, was that you knew an employable skill was being transferred and, unlike today’s school system, the work being done was directly beneficial to the ‘master’.

    I do not propose that society go back to apprenticeship-style education. But I am aware of a wide variety of techniques to develop greater relationships among old and young. I really do not believe in generational difference as a permanent or even interesting topic. I think it exists, but for socio-political reasons that can shift really fast.

    For instance, there was a heck of a lot of confidence for the gen-Y group with a huge promise of easy-to-get jobs and whatnot. Didn’t happen. I don’t think we can reliably extrapolate generational differences either. There are too many variables to consider.

    I do think we can open doors for community engagement. People young and old need spaces to hear and be heard. Library schools and training programs are *just* beginning to get with the, erm, program in this regard. Stay tuned!

    Finally, I am very wary of the lip-service paid by elders to be receptive to innovations from the young. I believe this first because I do see it as mostly lip-service and second because of the burden it places on the young ‘to be innovative’. True innovation happens from doing, not just ‘coming up with ideas’. Most of the best innovations never receive anything resembling an award. Many award-winning innovations are mostly image-based activities intended to make the organization appear ‘innovative’ (and therefore ‘young’ and ‘sexy’ and ‘beautiful’ etc.).

  8. OK, thanks for that clarification. Obviously, one thing this points out is the generational differences in language use. Both you and Kay Dee referred to the Borg (which I recognized from the Star Trek series), but since I didn’t see the movie, I missed the “same individual” meaning. I took homogenous in Webster’s connotation of commonality, or similarity. (“Clone” would have conveyed your meaning totally to me, but that again just shows how we all cling to our experience roots.)

    I agree whole heartedly that diversity and critical thinking are important, but I have experienced too many times how diversity of opinion leads to a stalemate in critical thinking (Like maybe now within our profession regarding 21st Century librarianship?), and too much “Borg” effect leads to “group think” that is anything but critical thinking. It’s a tough balance in any environment, a serious challenge for education, and an especially tough challenge for library staff trying to reinvent themselves into 21st Century librarians.

    I still think your understanding of apprentice-style learning misses the reality that the VAST majority of teachers, even as recently as 20 years ago, believed that they were the experts whose job it was to make the young mind conform to their concept of whatever subject they believed they had mastered (well, pretty much any topic they had thoughts about). I’m old enough to actually have been one of those teachers when I taught my first undergrad class in management in 1983. Thankfully, further education about the adult learner showed me that teaching is actually “learner-centered”. Harry Overstreet (1875-1970) is quoted as writing that a teacher “… must be a learner himself. If he has lost his capacity for learning, he is not fit to be in the company of those who have preserved theirs.” Overstreet’s ideas were never main stream in academia during his life. In fact most hated his idea that a “good teacher” also had to be a “good learner”. AND, Malcolm Knowles: Apostle of Andragogy (who got many of his ideas from Overstreet) was seriously criticized by academia for his ideas about learner-centered adult education as recently as the 1980s. So, the concept of learner-centered education has been around for well over half a century, but has only been embraced within the past decade or so. (That’s also what comes from having been around for so damn long – knowing the evolution of a given subject area.)

    I also whole heartedly agree that we, as a library profession, cannot benefit from generalizing generational differences, because there ARE too many variables. That is why I profess that three categories of library patrons are sufficient for our professional needs – Traditional, Digital Immigrant, and Digital Native patrons.

    I am very interested in your ideas about library education programs. I understand the same thing you mention – they aren’t with the program yet. I know a metropolitan library director who told me within the past year that she hired a temp who was a recent graduate of a prominent library school to do reference, and the young person actually posed the question to her; “Do I have to answer every reference question I’m asked?” SERIOUSLY!!

    Finally, you must have seen the movie “Up in the Air” where the young Ivy League graduate proposed that a professional “employee termination” business eliminate their traveling reps and replace them with video linked “termination engineers” to inform people they were being let go. Looked good on paper, but failed in practice. But then, reading between the lines, it sounds like you have a more personal perspective on “innovation”. Have you written about it in your blog?

    Again, my sincere thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

  9. Pingback: 21st Century Patrons – Revisited « 21st Century Library Blog

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