Thy Right Hand Knoweth Not.

Originally published in Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies (http://marylaine.com/exlibris). Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999–2004.

Have you noticed an interesting dichotomy between our profession’s theory and practice regarding recruitment? While our professional organizations and journals are working hard to recruit the next generation of librarians before we all retire en masse in the next ten years, library administrators and coworkers are treating newly minted young librarians badly—as Rachel Singer Gordon says, “some of us might cynically think ALA’s true campaign recruitment motto is ‘Recruit, Refuse, Ridicule.’”

Reporting on a survey of new librarians for Library Journal, Ria Newhouse and April Spisak said, “We are new librarians. In our first year, after coming up against bureaucratic brick walls and resistance to new ideas for libraries, we were almost convinced that the field of librarianship was virtually unchangeable.”

Happily, there are numerous new resources for young librarians that show them methods for establishing their credibility and gently leading those who adamantly oppose change, including a discussion list, NEXGENLIB-L. Rachel Singer Gordon’s NextGen column in Library Journal is another. In the September 15 issue, her column urges NextGens thrust into supervisory positions over resistant older staff, to model the respectful behavior they want library staff to give them, by listening seriously to all objections to their ideas.

But it’s equally true that library administrations have an obligation to pay attention to the ideas of their new young librarians, for several reasons:

  • because we don’t want them to leave the profession in disgust — the survey pointed out that only 57.9 percent agreed with the statement that libraries are an open and affirming place for new librarians. That’s not a passing grade. The same survey found that only 50 percent of those under 30 expected to stay in public libraries. Retention is cheaper and easier than recruitment.
  • because one of the primary responsibilities of administration is encouraging and rewarding their staff’s professional development
  • because we need their energy and enthusiasm
  • because new young librarians understand their own generation, our future taxpayers and, depending on our performance, library users or non-users.
  • because they’re not intimidated by new technologies and not frustrated by the rate of technological change. They’re part of the generation that grew up with the internet, IM, text messaging, cell phones, Blackberries, multi-user domain games, virtual reality, and their own personal web sites.
  • because they bring a whole different knowledge base to the table.

It’s that last point I want to focus on. Even if young librarians were as callow, impetuous, and unaware of practical limitations as some older librarians seem to assume, they still know things we do not know.

I was just reading James Surowiecki’s new book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. In it, he quotes organizational theorist James G. March:

’The development of knowledge may depend on maintaining an influx of the naïve and ignorant, and . competitive victory does not reliably go to the properly educated.’ The reason, March suggested, is that groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives. Or, as March has argued, they spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring. Bringing new members into the organization, even if they’re less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what the new members do know is not redundant with what everyone else knows.”

In the face of rapid demographic, technological and political change, we must do everything we can to make our entire organization smarter and nimbler, which includes hiring and listening to new young librarians. The fact is that “what everyone knows” is sometimes wrong, which explains the extended time-lag between when a revolutionary new theory is proposed and when it is generally accepted as true: it’s the time required for defenders of existing theories to die and get out of the way.

The solution, it seems to me, is to give our new young librarians what Newhouse and Spisak found they want: “Huge doses of openness and affirmation … proper training, adherence to the tenets of librarianship, appropriate feedback and rewards.” Of course they should be respectful and willing to learn from older librarians. But older librarians have the obligation to listen back, and give the newest members of our profession opportunities to put their ideas and enthusiasm into practice.


You may find this and other interesting articles at Marylaine’s Web Site. Marylaine created and manages Ex-Libris, a free service that promotes her business as a writer and speaker. She’d certainly appreciate it if next time you need a conference speaker you’d keep her in mind—you can see outlines of various presentations she’s given at http://marylaine.com/handouts.html.