A Millennial’s perspective on libraries

January 12, 2007

Over the course of a few days, a posting at Meredith Farkas’ blog Information Wants to be Free has prompted much conversation. One would need to look at the posting and subsequent comments to get the gist of the posting, but I would like to focus on something brought up by an anonymous poster in the process.

The poster is 23 years old and works in a library. That would make this person a member of the Millennial generation, which supposedly enjoys being “connected” all the time. However, this person’s initial comment demonstrates that such a notion does not apply universally to Millennials. Here’s most of it verbatim:

    I’m 23. I work in a library, but do not consider myself to be a librarian. As a “digital native,” I’m supposed to be really into all this stuff–the social internet. I’m not. For the most part, I think it’s stupid. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around classes and libraries in an online world such as Second Life. I played around with it two years ago when I was an undergrad. It was a silly pursuit then. Back then, the only people in Second Life were computer nerds and sexual perverts (predominantly furries). Somehow, I doubt very much has changed, but it’s pretty apparent SL has grown a few heads since then. Even still, it’s embarrassing to be associated with people that take this Library 2.0 stuff seriously. Most of the applications are useless fads that have no use in an academic context. In my opinion, since it seems most librarians are middle aged, it seems like they’re collectively having a midlife crisis.

I mentioned that I found the comments interesting, considering the conventional wisdom about Millennials. I asked the anonymous commenter if this had been a topic of conversation with friends. I received the following response:

    And to address your question, Jason, I do feel that the higher-ups in the library staff perceive that my generation wants information in a different manner than we actually do. Ease of searchability is a big deal, but I don’t want the library to provide me content or contact me over myspace or facebook, which is what certain people think ought to be done. Just because a particular library created a myspace page that has a lot of friends on it doesn’t mean it’s not silly or unprofessional. It’s just one more “friend” someone can add to their list, because, let’s face it, a lot of people treat the social internet as a popularity contest. I think college students hate the fact that high schools are on facebook now and think even less of there being figures of adult authority on it as well. The dissemination of information through this medium, including Second Life, has a very limited appeal to would-be patrons of an academic library. While some people might find it interesting for a little while, I think most people would reject it outright. To me, it seems like something that should be left as a hobby, because I see it having no role in the education system in the future. God help me if I’m wrong, because I wouldn’t want to live in a future where all of our classes and libraries are in persistent online worlds. It’s just dehumanizing. Trust me, many of us in the “Y Generation” still like books (or at least printed material) because it’s annoying reading three hundred pages of text on a computer monitor. When I was doing research last semester, I *printed* all of the JSTOR articles I found. And I know I’m not alone in my perspective among students my age.

I realize that these comments are based on one person’s experiences, so it is anecdotal. However, I want to use this posting to launch a thread where others share their experiences involving Millennials and libraries. I hope to hear from more Millennials, but comments from librarians are also welcome. It might take a while to build up enough comments to make some generalizations, but I hope to return to this when the time is right.

I would like to thank the anonymous poster for allowing me to post their comments, and anyone who wishes to add anything else pertinent.

5 Responses to “A Millennial’s perspective on libraries”

  1. T Scott Says:

    (I’m fifty-one, so does that make me a “double-millennial”?) Just a couple of quick comments — I work in a large urban university and there have been a couple of sceptical articles in the student newspaper lately about the increasing use of technology and distance learning — the gist is that having the technology available is good, but the essence of the learning experience is the in-person give and take that occurs in a classroom overseen by an engaged and inspiring teacher and the students don’t want us to lose sight of that. We’ve also been spending a lot of time over the last year thinking about how to redesign the undergraduate library — the feedback we’ve gotten from focus groups is that the students want more technology available, and they want places to work together (in person) collaboratively, but they definitely do not want this at the expense of the books or quiet, contemplative spaces. Most millenials are far more complex than the quick generational generalizations. But then, that’s probably true for all of us, isn’t it?


  2. It may be unfortunate that Anonymous is engaging in a little gen-gen him/herself (“ince it seems most librarians are middle aged, it seems like they’re collectively having a midlife crisis”), but a few more data points about the, well, general nonsense of generation-generalizations are always helpful. Speaking as a pre-Baby-Boomer (one year ahead of the deluge), I find more variation within any “generation”–at a given age–than across “generations” at that age. Funny thing about academic libraries, how when you actually ask the undergrads (much less grads) what they need and want in a library space, books and quiet contemplative spaces continue to be important [along with lots of other stuff]. Not surprising, unless you’ve heard the so-called conventional wisdom that rarely comes from actually asking people at a given institution what they want and need.

    Good post, good comment. Thanks both.


  3. I also think it has been a mistake to think that it is the young who have most desired online services and the like. Another big demographic for online learning are people with children. I know that was the case when I was a new father — I probably would have rathered the in-person experiences, but online was all I could do mobility-wise. I’m not sure “cool” and “collaborative” would have appealed to me as much as “simple” and “easy.” No way would I have wanted to do a Second Life environment. Too much work to get so little done. The phone would have been just fine thank you.

    Being able to add my subject librarian/prof to a delicious network would have been pretty good though — but that would have been a “convenience” thing, not a social thing.

    I was doing some part time work at the reference desk at the time too, though, so I had the opportunity to access the occasional print resource when I needed to. I just loved the good-quality subject specific encyclopedias!

  4. Sara Zoe Says:

    Jason – thanks for moving this conversation over here. I was catching up on the hullabaloo over at InfoWantsToBeFree and all of a sudden this great conversation starts up in the middle and I was thinking these same thoughts –

    Anonymous – thank you thank you thank you for saying out loud that people don’t really want their librarians in MySpace. I know it’s been said before, but since the message isn’t getting through it bears as much first person repetition as possible. I work in a public high school library and make my im name known. Occasionally, kids contact me. Very very very occasionally, if I have been working with a student on an involved project and something new comes up that can’t wait for Monday, I’ll contact them. The End. We’re not friends, I’m the adult, they’re the kid (I’m 30, btw, and a fake librarian w/ 1 year of online lib school to go), or at least, that is how they seem to prefer it. Otherwise, I run across their away aim messages, their MySpace missives, etc., that are meant for their friends – not for me. I don’t mind being as contactable as possible, which is why I make my im and email known – but the reverse seems like an invasion of privacy.

  5. Rich S. Says:

    A year late, but I want to post a comment.
    I work at a publishing company that sells indexes and such to libraries. I work on a book that is a compilation of articles about internet safety, and came across this while kinda taking a break from the subject. This generational stuff has come up alot in my research, and it just irks me the wrong way with the generalization of generations. I hate generalization and categorizing groups of people in general, so this topic interests me.
    I was born at the near-end of so-called “GenX” (’75). I always thought the term “GenX” sounded super cool and edgy. But it’s just another convenient way to target, manipulate, and market a group of people who grew up with similar cultural references (i.e., He-Man, Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids, Power Rangers, etc.).
    I remember using card catalogs to search for books as a child, and then using the computer catalogs during high school, where I never used the reference desk. And in college was the beginning of the Internet (still in its infancy), so I was at the beginning of the information boom and can relate to the group of students who now use the internet for all their research. (We even had LiveJournal, the precursor to MySpace, et. al.)
    I found the comment about librarians having a midlife crisis for using Second Life funny. Although it does sounds rather ageist, the point I get from this is that there does seem like a obsessive rush by people to hurry up and jump into a virtual world. It looks desperate, quite frankly. (Maybe we’re such an obese nation because we love to live on the internet so much.)
    So my general response is to get outside and enjoy the world–and if you are able, travel! Meet people of all ages and nationalities. And stop obsessing about generations!


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