Dispelling Intergenerational Workplace Cultures in Libraries Today: Who Does It Best?

By Raymond Pun, Jahala Simuel, Eboni M. Henry and Sara Dallas

At the 3rd national Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) in New Mexico last September (2018), we presented a session on intergenerational cultures which was intended  to examine the variances of generational cohorts that exist in today’s library workplace. Based on discussions held during the session, it is clear that this topic is important and relevant to all who work in libraries.

We spend more time with people we work with than with some of our family members. Library employees’ ages range from teenagers to retirees. How do we bring these elements into a lively discussion? The presenters, who range from baby boomers to generation X to millennials, each spoke from individual experiences as supervisors and leaders, and focused on how to address the intergenerational dynamics. Many questions were raised regarding communication cultures, management strategies, family, work/life balance as  well as other topics during the session.

Using Poll Everywhere, an activity was initiated to anonymously capture the audience’s perceptions of each of the three generations . It became obvious that attendees had different attitudes and perspectives toward each group. This allowed us to open a larger discussion on how realistic perceptions are for those who belong in each generation. Take a look at the images to discover what we found.

Thoughts on Baby Boomers

Motivational skills for baby boomers was one of the major topics of discussion.  For example, how should baby boomers motivate each other and other generations? Sara Dallas, one of the panelists and Director of the Southern Adirondack Library System shared her thoughts on the subject. She believes that supervisors can provide baby boomers  with opportunities to mentor younger generations; encourage boomers to attend conferences and participate in related professional associations and involve boomers in decision making processes. Dallas mentioned that employees are the most valuable resource in the library. We are the key in the provision of library services to the community and all employees should think about their contributions and incorporate the importance of the work in relationship to the mission, goals and objectives of the library.  More importantly, people should understand why the work matters and how it fits in.


Thoughts on Generation X

Panelist Jahala Simuel, who is the Head of Access Services at the Howard University-Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library offered her insights into generation X. She believes that generation X possesses a different work ethic compared to boomers. They may be the smallest portion of the workforce, but they are the institution’s rising stars and current leaders. Panelist Eboni Henry, a school librarian in DC agreed and mentioned how the generation X cohort has distinct preferences regarding how they manage direct reports and are managed by their supervisors compared to other generations.


Thoughts on Millennials

Experiences can vary widely. For the millennial cohort, it can be about working collaboratively, building relationships and ensuring that what we do is connected to a greater purpose in the organizations in which we. Raymond Pun, an academic librarian and panelist remarked that millennials are very interested in workplace equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice. They are always trying to learn new skills and be involved in the process because they are hopeful that they can foster change and growth in organizations and in themselves. However, they also recognize burnout and toxic environments and strive for a better work/life balance. It really isn’t all about those “avocado toasts.”

Final Thoughts

These intergenerational cohorts are not strictly defined by their personality traits. There are many other factors to consider such as one’s cultural background. Our session sparked opportunities for reflection and discussion by the attendees who are managers within these various cohorts. During the Q&A portion of the session we received many comments and questions from folks who shared their experiences as managers. One major take-away from the session is the idea that we as a library profession need to strategize on how we can organize opportunities for everyone to be part of the decision making and organizational change processes. We also believe that there needs to be better communication among the cohorts, along with opportunities to enhance soft skills including leadership potential, ability to supervise and direct others, working as part of a team, good problem solving, caring about the work, and demonstrating a certain amount of flexibility and adaptability. This makes us think that the dialogue on intergenerational workplace in libraries should continue.


Raymond Pun is the Instruction/Research Librarian at Alder Graduate School of Education.

Jahala Simuel is the Head of Access Services and Medical Librarian at Howard University-Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library.

Eboni M. Henry is the school library media specialist at the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Sara Dallas is the Director of the Southern Adirondack Library System.