on age, technology, and culture

Yesterday morning I wrote 90% of a long, well-thought-out post about online identity and librarianship and stereotypes and age and leadership… and WordPress ate it sometime between leaving my house and arriving at work.  I can’t recreate it.

So I’ll say this, which bears some passing resemblance to that, though I think yesterdays was less manifesto-y and more thoughtful-y.

The issue (alluded to here, and discussed with some passion here) is not age.

Of course there are librarians over 35, 40, 60 who are tech-savvy and have chosen to dive into online communication and the identity it creates.  Of course there are librarians straight out of grad school who think Twitter is inane.  Of course all teenagers don’t know how to hack their iPhone or program their mom’s Roomba or do more than post a cell-phone picture to Facebook.  OF COURSE.  I’m a big fan of critical thinking, so  I don’t believe that any blanket generalization about age is true or correct.  I count on people like Bill Drew and Walt Crawford to remind me of this if I ever slip in my language, so I try to be precise in what I mean when I write or say something that alludes to age in our profession.  But it’s a touchy issue.  I know this because every. single. time. that I mention generational differences, “new” or “young” librarians, or the rapid aging of our professional leadership pool, someone leaps on it and says “Not me!  NOT ME! HA! WRONG!”  We are obsessed.  I was even warned, this time ’round, that for speaking my opinion about age within our profession — even with caveats and generalizations —  and describing my own (true, real, legitimate) experiences with same, I was putting myself at risk of being sued for age discrimination.  For talking about it.

And so I feel compelled, since it is such a hot-button issue that prompts such immediate ire and conflict from people, to state what I do believe, based on my own experiences and my perceptions of our profession and our professional culture.

What I believe is this:  Because of cultural shifts, generational differences, and the ongoing permeation of our culture by technology, we are thinking about technology differently as time moves forward, and as with anything that moves from being a novelty to being an integral part of daily life, where you were and what you were doing when that became true for you then serves to define how you interact with the thing at hand. The portable mp3 player has gone from being a novelty item to a ubiquitous piece of technology.  The point you were at in your life, and therefore your comfort with, your familiarity with, and your perception of the utility of the thing will be different depending on that point.  Do you commute?  Are you a runner?  Do you love music?  Are you a news radio person?  Do you love audiobooks?  Do you have a visual disability? And, to my point, were you 2 years old when you got your first iPod, and therefore don’t know life without one?  All of those questions, and your personal answers to them, will define how you view the now-ubiquitous iPod.  How you engage with using the hardware and software.  How you view the issue of DRM and the music industry.  How you perceive the role of streaming and downloading music in our entertainment and learning environments.  Whether you even care about these things.  And thus, how you engage with planning for the use of the technology in your library.

And so I believe that there are real, measurable differences between the way that, in general, the leaders and holders of official and unofficial power in our libraries relate to technology, online communication, and online identity, and the ways that our up-and-coming users, say, the cohort that’s currently at age 13, will relate to technology, online communication, and online identity in 5 years when they walk in the doors of my library.

I don’t see that statement as discriminatory.  I see it as cultural fact.  Different generations, different experiences, different adoption models and behavior patterns that create different assumptions and different expectations.

Furthermore, given that I believe that, I long to see more library leadership trying to forge a path that’s designed around the needs and wants and emerging culture of those young users, not around the needs and wants and established  culture of libraries and librarianship.  Not at the sacrifice of what libraries are, but with an acknowledgment that, as Michele Ann Jenkins said at Web 2.You on Friday, “Your internet is not my internet.”  And we seem to have built a decision-making culture in our libraries that looks like this:

Librarian A ………. Decision ………. Librarian B

Librarian A proposed something to the left.  Librarian B proposed something to the right.  They compromised on a decision.  But what happens if you add in a prospective users:

Librarian A ………. Decision ………. Librarian B …………………………………………………… Users

Is that compromise decision located where you need it to be to provide good, relevant, meaningful service, given where the users and their expectations are located?

I would exhort all librarians, in a position of current power or not — young, old, or in between — to realize, acknowledge, and pay attention to the fact that our internet — the internet we love, that we hate, that we use, that we teach — is not the internet that our young future users see and immerse themselves in and use and love and hate.  I would also exhort all librarians in a position of current power, be it leadership power, administrative power, or the power of longevity and respect, to support rather than belittle the colleagues at your institution who want to bridge the gap between us and them.  To encourage rather than stifle those librarians and library staff who want to try to think like the user, who want to build systems and services to meet their needs.  Because we are not them, and they are not us, and we mustn’t build systems for ourselves.  We must be sympathetic to their perspectives, and move ourselves toward being what they want and need us to be.  We cannot build libraries that satisfy just us, because it’s not about us.  It’s about them.

5 thoughts on “on age, technology, and culture

  1. bevedog

    “I would also exhort all librarians in a position of current power, be it leadership power, administrative power, or the power of longevity and respect, to support rather than belittle the colleagues at your institution who want to bridge the gap between us and them.”

    I see nothing to object to when you put it that way.

  2. stevenb

    I hope librarians of my generation will come across your post, although I’ve found that most of them have never picked up on blog reading. I support the two important activities you advocate in your post – reverse mentoring and empathic design – and you make a good point that all librarians should pay more attention to them regardless of what generation into which they fall. You might find this 2006 post of interest – on the value of reverse mentoring: http://bit.ly/anKVtB – as well as this post on applying an empathic framework to your library:
    http://bit.ly/a4sbGm .

    There’s value in each generation learning from the other and in librarians learning about technology from the users. I often stop and ask students about their gadgets and what they are doing with them. Some time ago I was sitting in a session with students and some of our admissions folks and we were talking about students and how they use technology. One of the students said something I still remember: “Just wait until our little brothers and sisters get here – they’ll really drive you crazy”. I think that said volumes about how different each generation will be when it comes to technology.

    Lastly, if you’ve never watched Seth Godin’s talk on why things are broken (search godin gel 2006), take about 20 minutes for it. One of the seven reasons things are broken is “I’m not a fish”. I think that does a great job of explaining why you have to be empathic (not so much sympathetic) in your design – a way of putting the “it’s about them not us” thinking into your practice.

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