August 18, 2008

Millennial Mania

Lately I've been thinking a lot about millennials.* The librarians I know often discuss millennials -- our current generation of younger patrons. How do millennials access and use information and how do they communicate? If librarians can pin down millennials' needs, we can better serve them and we can maintain our relevance in an increasingly decentralized information age.

I realized recently that the youngest of today's library school students are among the first crop of millennial librarians. In this vein, I have a confession to make. I am a millennial (a fact that I hadn't confronted about myself until, fittingly, I read it in black and white on Wikipedia). So what does it mean that we new librarians are in the same generation as the students that more experienced librarians are desperately seeking to understand?

As a millennial (however reluctant I am to admit it because it makes me feel like an awkward middle schooler), I am accustomed to rapidly-evolving information and communication technologies. I remember dial-up, but barely. I may not be a skilled texter, but I could be if I focused more. I rarely have the attention span to read a book cover-to-cover, but I can spend hours following a trail of interesting Facebook updates.

I've been asking around about millennials, and I've heard they expect information resources to be intuitive, to be Google or Wikipedia-esque in their ease of use. I've also heard that millennials are as likely to rely on peers as they are to rely on their superiors for "expert" advice. I’m not sure how true these things are of me, but I think they may be generally true of those youngsters born in the 1990s.

This collaborative way of approaching knowledge (and in a sense determining our truths by the consensus of any given moment) signals a shift in society discussed --and sometimes bemoaned-- by philosophers and pundits alike. But older generations have a history of worrying about what cultural dead-ends those young kids are leading us into. And as of yet, cultural evolution has continued apace both despite and because of the innovations of the young.

Personally, I don’t think we need a revolutionary response to millennials’ supposed information, communication and technology prowess. I don't think we need the brand "Library 2.0" to open ourselves to a paradigm shift. Libraries have always evolved to reflect society’s views of knowledge, and have so far managed to remain relevant and useful. Maybe we respond a little more slowly to the latest technology, perhaps with slightly more deliberation. But we adopt the things that work and we empower our patrons adopt them, too. I value this traditional function of libraries as much as the next librarian, millennial or no.

So, what does it really mean to be a millennial librarian? Is there really a generational gap here, or are the reports of our differences greatly exaggerated?

* Beware that Wikipedia link, the year range listed for the "millennial" or "gen y" generation changes regularly. I guess that's a symptom of society's attempt to describe itself as it evolves. Or the lack of authority and dependability of Wikipedia articles. Take your pick. For more on naming the millennial generation, see this Washington Post article.


  1. A youngster once told me that he could tune into the wee-fee internets on his ip-od. Isn't that something?

    Things are changing, but they aren't falling apart. We’ve just got this digital divide thing on our hands right now, and it’s really freaking everyone out. We can’t jump on every fad, but we should jump on some based on the needs of library users. Moderation is key.

    Also, Katie, the pictures you chose for this post are amazing.

  2. Great post, Ms. Dover-Taylor.

    I think Emily's exactly right. Yes, things ARE changing, but they ALWAYS have. Librarians have dealt with technological/cultural change in the past, and we will continue to do so. Our profession is evolving, just like the rest of society. I think we should take more time to remind ourselves of this.

    I think most people would argue that the kind of change we're experiencing today is unprecedented, somehow on a differt scale than we've ever known. I'm skeptical. But maybe that's because I'm a slightly jaded Gen Y baby myself, less willing to accept the prognostications of "experts."

    And oh yeah, Library 2.0... I think the question I'd like to hear people asking is "How do we make sure our Library 2.0 projects don't become the next "Friendster" (remember Friendster, anyone?).

    Do you ladies have any thoughts about the language/stereotypes we use to talk about millennials?

  3. Emily, thanks for noticing the pictures. I thought it was important to include some quality 1990s levity. It is Millennial Mania, after all.

    Meredith, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I actually talked about this information "revolution" in my supercalafragilisticexpialidorktious SI application essay:

    From the intracellular to the international level, we are both driven by and dependent on communication. Our aptitudes for interpersonal communication and introspection are qualities that define us as human, allow and inspire us to interact socially, and empower us to develop knowledge and remember history. Technological advances in communication have drastically changed our world – from the printing press to the cellular phone, each innovation requires us to renegotiate our relationships with each other and the information we produce. For millennia, libraries have gathered, stored, catalogued and maintained information, primarily in paper form. For millennia, an expedition to the nearest library has been the best way to access the knowledge of a society. But as individuals gain the power to create, disseminate and access a broad spectrum and an immense volume of information over the internet, often from their own homes, libraries have lost the monopoly they once held as our gateways to learning.

    We don't have a monopoly anymore and it scares us a little. But it's an evolution, not a revolution, just like you said. I remember Friendster, I actually finally got around to deleting my account this year. I agree with both you and Emily that we should adopt new technologies in moderation, and be willing to abandon the things that don't quite work, just as society does.

    As far as stereotypes about millennials, as a cusp-millennial, I am not offended by them. I have noticed a lot of the symptoms of millennialness in our user population, to be sure. And I think I exhibit a few, too. But I don't think we should bend over backwards to cater to millennials' every whim; we should be firm in offering services that work for both librarians and our patrons, and we should try to avoid focusing on giving people what they think they want. Whether or not we're recognized as experts ("you need a master's degree for that?"), we should appreciate and trust our own expertise. After all, we are Masters of Information.

    So, yeah... That's my 20 cents.