Digital Native or Digitally Naive: Library and Information Services for the Next Generation #2

I spoke at this meeting, organised with considerable flair and efficiency by the East of England Information Services Group of CILIP, earlier this week. It was good to see that the many delegates were such enthusiastic futurists, that the scope for creative library services is still yet to be exhausted, and that the concept of the ‘google generation’ was largely regarded to be a myth.

I talked around the concept of ‘influences’; the idea being that in order to say something about the services which will be needed in the future, we should consider factors influencing the information communication chain in the present. I usually suggest we pay attention to issues within the realms of technology, society, politics and economics, although others may hold that alternative or additional forces are at work.

Whilst it is holistic to consider each aspect of the communication chain, [authorship, publication/dissemination, organisation, indexing/retrieval and use], it is perhaps not unexpected for library services to prioritize their users; what sort of characteristics are engendered by exposure to technology, politics, economics and society ? This query is embedded in concept of ‘generations’, currently a popular field of writing and research within library and information science.

The ‘generations’ theme purports that we are products of the influences to which we were exposed in our formative years (I would take this to mean from childhood to mid-twenties, but again, others may have their own understanding and I have not found a definitive answer yet). The well known phrase ‘baby-boomers’ has been joined with categories including ‘veterans’, ‘generation X’, ‘generation Y’, millenials, and ‘generation Z’ or the ‘Google Generation’, and there are others. These time-related slots are intended to contain people whose formative years occurred at a particular point in time, and thus whose influences would have been similar. Alas, like any attempt to organize, there are problems, in that there is considerable variation in the definition of the categories and their time limits, and that there are people whose ‘formative years’ extend well beyond the boundaries of decency. Whilst many of us were exposed to glam rock idols such as T-Rex and Sweet once a week on the telly, (ha ! look them up …) – we are nevertheless content to download the angsty Kings of Leon onto our iPods any time we want, 30 years later. In spite of their early years, people can adapt. We can all be classed as members of the ‘Google Generation’ as we all use Google to our benefit. However, the advent of services such as StreetView and Google Books raise important questions, and not just those of privacy and copyright. We have to consider the impact of access to just about anything and everything in digital format – by anyone, from anywhere. What role will the library have when books can be downloaded to ebook readers – when social networks such as those offered by LibraryThing replace so much of what we offer ?

But – if we take a broader look, the concept of generations can be helpful. Not everyone adapts to technological changes, menu hierarchies rather than analogue choice. There are still those who search out books. At the other end of the spectrum, those used to instant, often non-contextualised answers and virtual worlds may require something different. It is easy to imagine that differences are dictated by ‘technological’ age – but there are other influences on both users and on the information communication chain which we can also take into account.

Economics affects us all; broadband is easy but expensive. Borrowing books saves money and communities fight bitterly to keep their public libraries. Academics publish in their own repositories rather than via commercial journals. Changes in society such as increasing isolation, limited income, the need for inspiration, affect the design and provision of public spaces, many of us drawn to buildings with a particular atmosphere and ambiance. Government policies such as increasing use of web technology to communicate with the populace and increasing the numbers in higher education, also effect the needs of users and consequently the services that our libraries should offer.

I concluded with Library 2.0 – a term I resisted at first, but one which now I think summarises how we could behave, even if it is not, as many have said, a new paradigm, and even if it only tells us how to discover services for the next generation, rather than telling us what they are.

Library 2.0 then :

– continually and purposefully changing the way libraries do things
– giving better service to existing users and attracting new ones
– improving communication between the library and its users
– encouraging users to participate in the design and delivery of services
– making good use of technology and digital information