By Meredith Farkas | January 29, 2007
I have received many e-mails in regards to the first article in my tenure as a columnist for American Libraries, “Balancing the Online Life” (wish I could link to it, but it isn’t online). Most of them have been very positive, but I did get a few complaints. All of them were from librarians who self-identified as baby boomers and all of them accused me of stereotyping, primarily for this:
Younger librarians often have a distinct advantage when it comes to keeping up with new technologies. Many of us under the age of 40 grew up with a computer in our homes and were using it to communicate with other people by the time we were in our teens.
Now I’m not saying here that people in their 20′s and 30′s are all more tech-savvy than people in their 40′s and 50′s. What I’m saying is that someone who grows up with something is going to find using it more natural. It’s like the facility for learning a language. I could learn a foreign language now at 29, but it would have been a whole lot easier to learn it when I was 3 years old.
I’m not bothered that people have accused me of stereotyping; you will never make everyone happy and will go crazy trying. I just found it interesting that some people saw it that way. I was originally asked to write about the different approaches to work and technology that younger librarians have. I immediately said no to that because I didn’t want to start my tenure with American Libraries with a divisive piece and I know how negatively some people react when someone starts writing about how the generations are different. I thought I could write something that is inclusive and still cover the current role of technologies in our life and work (all in under 1500 words! lol). I wanted to write something that would dispel the idea that only young people are into new technologies and only young people can be tech-savvy. I have met so many librarians (some as young as 39!!!) who have told me that they can’t learn about technologies because of their age. What a cop-out! I think librarians should be embarrassed at any age not to be able to use and troubleshoot the basic technologies in their library (be they printers, e-mail or online databases). Librarians don’t all need to know how to use blogs and wikis, but they should at least be familiar with the tools that their patrons use. I don’t believe there is any job in a library these days that doesn’t require some knowledge of technology, and yet it’s the attitude of too many librarians that technology is somehow separate from what they do and that only a few people in the library need to know that stuff.
That’s why I immediately wrote to someone I really admire, Rick Roche, and asked him if I could interview him for my article. Rick started working in libraries in the 1970s and works in the public services area of a small-ish public library in the Chicago ‘burbs. He blogs, contributes to a wiki, does IM reference and goes to conferences like Internet Librarian and LITA Forum. He has made a conscious decisions to keep up with technology and he uses it in both his personal and professional lives. He looks to younger colleagues for insights on technology and I’m sure teaches them a great deal as well. It’s not like any of us are born knowing this stuff. I admire Rick, not just because he’s a baby boomer who has kept up with technology, but because he is comfortable enough with himself to learn from anyone, regardless of their age or how many years they’ve been in the field. It’s obvious from all of my dealings with Rick that he isn’t obsessed with age and sees people as people.
I had hoped to show that anyone can keep up with technology, but it takes effort, no matter what age you are. As I wrote in my article:
Roche is just one of a growing number of baby boomer librarians who are adopting these technologies for their personal and professional use. This fact was clearly in evidence at the 2006 Internet Librarian conference, where baby boomers made up a significant part of the attendee population. With the speed in which technology is changing these days, people of all ages need to work to keep up with the tools that are available to us.
Use terms like Baby Boomer, GenX or Millennial and chances are someone will be offended by it. I find that interesting. I am not personally a fan of these rather artificial distinctions. How much does someone born in 1965 have with someone born in 1979? Or someone born in 1961 and someone born in 1946? I don’t buy into a lot of the sweeping generalizations about Millennials. I’m considered a GenX-er, but I don’t identify with the characters in those Douglas Coupland books nor do I remember the ’70s since I was 2 1/2 when they ended. I do think generational distinctions are often inaccurate. Still, people who shared common experiences do often share things in common. The worldview of who were in their teens and 20′s during Vietnam was shaped by the events of that era. Just as I and many people around my age (give or take seven years) were influenced by video games and the end of the Cold War. And although not everyone born after 1980 is super tech-savvy, they do seem to have different expectations of technology than do those of us who started using the Internet in college or later. We are shaped by these things. This was brought home to me when I was having dinner with a group of friends ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s and one of them brought up the nightmarish time that her parents had trying to get her a Cabbage Patch Kid in 1983. I, being nearly the same age, was the only person who had also experienced that frenzy. I’m not saying it was a defining moment in my life (though I really loved my Cabbage Patch Kids), but there are just certain experiences that are common to people born within a few years of each other. And they contribute to making us who we are, though they do not limit us.
So why do a few tech-savvy baby boomer librarians become so defensive at the idea that younger people who grew up with PCs and the Internet at home have an advantage when it comes to learning about technology? It’s like saying that men are naturally born with better upper body strength — certainly doesn’t mean that a woman can’t become stronger than a man. So why the sensitivity to something that isn’t even saying that people are limited by age? Is it because they are sensitive about their skills? Is is because they don’t want to be lumped in with people of their generation who have not kept up? Is it because they feel like someone is saying they’re irrelevant? I’m not saying that I know. I don’t; and I wish I understood where this sensitivity comes from. My generation has been pegged as being lazy and lacking in direction. Do I think that applies to me? Golly no! Maybe the majority of people of my generation do fit certain stereotypes (and I’m not saying they do), but I think most people with brains recognize that not everyone does.
The problem in libraries is not the attitudes of Boomers versus younger librarians. It’s those who are change-oriented and interested in keeping up versus those who have no interest in adapting library services for a changing population.
Update: Why is it that every time I write a post, I find that StrongBad has already discussed the issue? Well… sort of. I wonder what StrongBad would have to say about Web 2.0…