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…
Meredith, I should start by saying that I haven’t read your column, so this is based only on your blog post. Your final comment about people who are change-oriented and interested in keeping up is excellent, and I think you’ve captured the essence of people’s disagreement with your column there. Being change-oriented has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.
As a Boomer who has worked almost daily with computers since the mid-1970s (before you were born), I don’t like being lumped with other people my age who haven’t kept up. I tend to think of myself as a digital elder, rather than a digital immigrant. I guess I should be thankful that no one has suggested that men are more comfortable with technology than women, or I’d be feeling doubly disadvantaged.
Hi Brenda. I definitely did not lump all Boomers together and I definitely never said that being change-oriented has anything to do with age. In fact, my point was that anyone can keep up regardless of age; that it’s ALL about attitude. The only “generalization” I made about age was that young people who grew up with technology often have an advantage when it comes to learning new technologies, but I went on to say that anyone can keep up and it’s work for everyone to keep up regardless of age.
And Brenda, I would never think of you as a digital immigrant or a digital elder. I think of you as a tech-savvy librarian who was a real pioneer with wikis in the library world. And you (and most others) don’t see me as a young punk who really has no right or qualifications to put on an online course like 5 Weeks to a Social Library. I think the Internet has actually been a great leveler in that regard; it’s all about what you put in.
And that is what the message of my article was. 🙂
You’re conclusion is spot on. It is definitely about people who are change oriented versus those who are not. It is a battle that occurs on every front of the library (and in other professions) because most people don’t like change. I think another large piece of it has to do with the culture of the library. A library where I formerly worked put so much emphasis on 2.0 technology that the librarians who were not familiar with any of it, but were willing to learn, still felt alienated and devalued by the sudden, overall shift in what they perceived were the library’s mission and vision. It is hard to find that balance between “traditional” librarianship and librarian 2.0, I think a lot of places forget that the balance is needed and in the end you wind up with skilled and talented people who feel isolated and angry.
Hey, I don’t care what anybody says, StrongBad is cool and down with the young parsons! Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my daily Yogurt Inna Tube snack.
Man, I think watching StrongBad is the best therapy out there. He kills me.
It’s wonderful that some librarians understand how various technologies can benefit libraries and their patrons. On the other hand, I have observed how smugness can cloud such understanding. Those who are “in the know” might think to themselves, “Well, I get it, but they don’t.” True that may be, but it doesn’t do any good to look down on those who are apprehensive about technology.
I agree with Mary’s comment that library culture is primarily to blame for librarians who seem to dislike technology. If a serious technophile runs a library and has a “they don’t get it” attitude, they run the risk of alienating those who do not see the value of new technologies. If a library director sees technology as important, they have an obligation to develop an institutional culture that does not devalue the contributions of the library’s less technologically-oriented employees, and that helps them to understand the evolution (not “revolution”) of the interaction between information and technology within a broader context.
I think some library staff feel apprehensive about new technologies for a number of reasons. I know that I might sound like a “bleeding heart” who’s “making excuses” for technologically-challenged employees, but here are a few things to consider:
They might not see changes within a broader historical context.
They might worry about the prospect of being on call “24/7.”
They might feel that they can’t keep up
They have already had a sufficient number of bad experiences related to technology (see above)
They worry that they won’t be able to learn new technologies well enough to do their work (also see above), and that they will ultimately lose their jobs.
Ultimately, library directors need to consider these possibilities (and maybe others I forgot) in order to make their “technologically-challenged” employees feel that they can thrive a technology-intensive environment. They can start by actively setting aside time so that library staff can learn about new developments in technology at work, or by actively encouraging staff to attend workshops and conferences on the library’s dime. Employees should not be expected to learn all this stuff on their own time or dime, and they might not know where to start.
Pedagogically speaking, it seems best to get library staff interested in technology by finding something that interests them. A library employee might have an interest in a certain author (naturally), so that could be the foundation for teaching that employee about technology. They could create a blog or wiki about that author, or do a podcast about that author. Most importantly, they should be told that it’s alright to make mistakes… especially if they’re perfectionists. Maybe by following such a strategy, there might be hope for our resident Luddites.
You’re not a bleeding heart at all, Jason. 🙂 I totally agree that it’s all in the approach. The way people are introduced to technologies can make or break their opinions of the technologies and whether they want to learn/implement them.
That’s why I think more libraries need to do what the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County did with first doing a comprehensive program to teach basic tech competencies (without judgment) and then teaching them about more “bleeding edge” technologies in a fun and community-oriented online environment in Learning 2.0.
Making learning about technology fun and an integral part of work (rather than something they need to do on their own) is what is needed. I couldn’t agree more.
(In response to Meredith’s comment)
I’m glad to know that I’m not a voice crying in the desert. I think the problem is that I’ve heard enough hardcore technophiles tell librarians that they need to “get with it” about technology, or else. (Maybe they intend such messages for library directors, but others who work in libraries read and hear that stuff as well.) If library staff hear such messages frequently enough, some of them might feel a sense of hopelessness if their institutions do not take active steps to encourage them to “play with” technology, or if they see coming technologies as “the next big thing” that will make their jobs obsolete. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to see how some staff take extremist positions in bashing technology.
I am glad to hear that some libraries do take an active role in getting their staff acquainted with new technologies. It would be interesting to learn more about the institutional cultures, and what has been effective.
Hmmm… looking at my posting above, I think I see another problem that might spook people about technology: when the danged HTML code for lists doesn’t work… 😉
I did read the article and I thought it was well written and not skewed with generalizations. However, I think part of the comaplints you see are from people who might be afraid at how their work environment uses general generational statements for or against a certain type of agenda. For example , at my workplace, one of the execs printed out this article from Fortune about Gen-Ys and their immediate expectations at work, wanting a high salary, being tech-savvy, etc. We’ve seen it all before. Except that this article was used to put some blame on the younger folks at work with the claim, “See? It’s your fault you expect too much and don’t get along with people! It’s your generation!” I (as the librarian) pointed to some other articles (’cause Lord knows we’ve seen enough of them in the library literature!) that address how a workplace might improve inter-generational relationships or work to retain young workers, but this first article was the only one used because it shored up the exec’s defense.
So, I think one has to be extra careful when making what should be a general harmless statement using a generational label and a comparison on which generation might have an advatage, because it can be used in a harmful way. Then again, so can so many stats in so many articles on so many topics.
Sounds over-PC, I know.
Hi. I’ve been lurking a bit, but love your blog. I’m in an English M.A. program now, and your comment about people “copping out” of new technologies by claiming they’re just too old to learn it reminds me so much of so many people in the humanities! It seems that saying “Oh, I’m in the humanities” is a good enough excuse for being out of the technology loop. It just seems to me that literature deals necessarily with the imaginative, and yet I often feel that I’m surrounded by people much less willing to BE imaginative and innovative than those in other fields. Makes me consider being a technologically-inclined librarian instead. 😉 But I guess I’ll just lurk around a few library blogs for now.
Meredith, as a Baby Boomer I took no offense (although I don’t like the label or the stereotype). I do take issue with much of the gen-gens, though, because much of my experience doesn’t seem to fit. I realize that taking a personal tack on generalizations is beside the point, but I do think there is some value in it. Let me explain.
You mentioned a colleague talking about the problems her parents had in getting Cabbage Patch Kids back in 1983. Then you mentioned remembering “that” yourself. But, in reality, those are two entirely different (no better, no worse) experiences. People your age and younger (like my own kids) either remember being excited about getting their CPK or being disappointed at not getting one. But it is us parents who remember the nightmare of trying to make our children happy with something that was in very limited supply, and knowing that our children would not understand the law of supply and demand. As an aside, for those parents who remember this, if you think you had problems, you should’ve tried being stationed outside the US and trying to get them for your children! Anyway, two different experiences around the same concept.
As for the whole digital immigrant/digital native labels–and thank you for not using them–I am offended by them as generally used. Again, from my own family’s experience … I am the one who was the digital native, long before my children were. I was programming computers in finite math in high school several years before I even had children. When we got a computer, it was mainly for me with some hopes that the kids could use it for educational purposes. But it was hard to find things they actually wanted to use it for. We lived overseas a lot so we didn’t have any full-time online stuff until 1996 and very, very limited online before that at by-the-minute German phone rates. Even in 1996 in Texas we only had dial-up, and only one car, so we tried hard to keep the kids off of it for practical reasons. My point, if anyone in my family is the digital native it is me. The Baby Boomer.
The way I see it, the so-called Millennials and others near them are more digital invaders–perhaps the equivalent of digital Visigoths. Now I know that doesn’t hold true for lots of folks. Just sayin’. The whole presumption that it is the younger folks who grew up with this “toys” or tools is presumptuous. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a study on these issues with a statistically valid sample.
Nice job with this post and your article. Lots of good comments, too. It does my heart no end of good to see you questioning so many things that are taken for granted.
For anyone who doesn’t understand my style, my comments are in no way meant to dispute anything Meredith said here. I am only attempting to add even more nuance, and to support what she has said here.
Amen to your last paragraph, although I’m kind of squeamish with the “change-oriented.” Not sure what is better though. I’m not change-oriented, but I accept and even embrace it when it is needed and proper. Otherwise, change be d-ed. 😉
I think it’s time to start shopping your resume around. If you’re in a place THAT change averse, they may be beyond help.
As a tech librarian AND humanities geek–A-MEN! The gap is not only one of generational experiences, but of people who entered the profession due to a love of books who are now afraid that this technology is going to change the aspects of librarianship that brought them here in the first place. I know that’s hogwash, you know that’s hogwash, but how do we show them that it’s hogwash without intimidating them? or scaring them? All of this resistence is ultimately rooted in fear.
(Oh yeah, Meredith, loved the article–you’re off with a bang, and I’m not surprised!)
(In response to Jandy’s comment)
I doubt that “copping out” about technology is the real problem. As Sarah mentions above, I think the apprehensions that some library staff have about technology are similar to those held by folks in the humanities. They might have good imaginations, but many of them might have an experiential or “visionary” gap in understanding how they might find innovation (in the technological sense) helpful.
Of course, in advocating the use of such innovation, I would steer clear of calling it that. As I mention with library staff above, I would discuss innovation within a context that one’s fellow humanities folks would understand. Only then might they “see the light” and develop a desire to learn about technological innovations, so that they can set their imaginations free.
(If you decide to become a librarian, Jandy, perhaps this topic could become your forte.)
This this Chronicle article might be a good “lead” for discussing the use of video games in the humanities. I don’t know how it would work, but there could be some potential here (as long as the developers are sufficiently thoughtful and understand the less “concrete” nature of the humanities).
Sorry I am so late on this discussion… As someone who has studied the “generational” differences (and similarities!) among librarians and end-users, I wasn’t offended at all by the language in your article and actually felt it to be gently inclusive of any member of any generation grappling with balancing/learning/joining these tech experiences. Further, I was just glad to see you bringing the wisdoms to AL. I look forward to more…. to be sure!
I encounter a LOT of stereotypical language in my travels and didn’t see that as your intent here in the least. I DO meet Boomers (more on the user side than practitioner, since let’s not forget the Baby Boomers started us out on this journey in the first place!) who are intimidated or nervous and I think it behooves us to keep that reality in our mind so we can temper our exuberance to fit our audience. This is something I must learn…. just ask my parents, aunts, and uncles! Not to mention coworkers!
Let’s face it…. this stuff CAN be intimidating and many of us are nervous for good reason. There was a time when pressing a single button accidentally could really screw things up. 🙂 These days are LONG gone, yes????
Of course, I love the article and this post and all the great conversation. As I see it, if you love what you do, you want do to your work well. Appropriate technology helps. If you are determined, you will learn what you need to learn. Your age has nothing to do with this, unless you actually have a health problem. The keys are desire, love, and joy.
Thank you, Meredith.