Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Net Gen Users

It seems like a lot of information professionals are preoccupied with answering the question: what do Net Generation students expect from libraries? I appreciate the literature that encourages libraries to adapt their services to the Google-loving, multimedia environment-dwelling, smartphone-owning student users of today, but it's important not to lose the purpose and function of the library in the rush to make a million and one changes. The concept of the information commons design: a comfortable, relaxed, available space where community is encouraged and technology celebrated, is a great idea. But I don't know that libraries need to develop video game-like tutorials to teach library resources or fill their libraries with flat screen TVs to display a rotating series of information resources factsheets. Video game appeal may draw some users in, but it's going to be difficult to convince them that watching a library tutorial is just as much fun as playing Portal 2 or Call of Duty. And as for those display screens, does anyone (other than the people who put them up) actually pay enough attention to them to absorb any of their content? Libraries have always played a critical role in learning: providing resources for class assignments, but more than that serving as places where individuals can pursue their education outside the classroom. I hope libraries won't forget the heights of their ancient design and calling as they initiate the evolution they seem to feel modern users expect.

It's not that I just want to criticize the current efforts being made by librarians, I only want to express my concern that despite their good intentions, many library "transformation" projects, are focusing on the wrong things. Joan Lippincott wrote in 2005 that "most libraries have not yet learned how to effectively integrate physical spaces with virtual spaces and services." I think her words describe quite well the root of the problem behind successfully reaching younger generations of library users. The world today is an endless double helix of reality and the virtual world, spiraling around each other, connected in a million places: omnipresent iPhones, Facebook groups that exist simultaneously online and in "real life," and even virtual reference shelves offering information to anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection. Today's students have grown up in these co-existing worlds, and to them the line distinguishing one from the other is definitely more grey than black and white. It's part of the way we think, work, read, and dream. And it doesn't just apply to "for fun" or leisure activities; to succeed in higher academic education (and most job fields, for that matter) students have to acquire literacy in not only the written word but also what George Luca called "a 'language of screens,' in order to be effective communicators."

Lippincott describes today's Net Generation as computer and technology savvy, but points out that "while Net Gen students generally can multitask, learn systems without consulting manuals, and surf the Web, they lack technology and information skills appropriate for academic work." To help students apply the vast knowledge they possess to academic problems and learning, libraries need to meet them in both worlds, physical and virtual. This means finding ways to connect the shelves of thick reference books and the librarian behind the desk and the massive online databases of e-journals and research tools (and Google, of course), or the quiet nooks where everyone loves to curl up with a good book and the daily blog post or webcomic we read on a religious basis. In some cases, this connection can be easy to achieve: wireless routers and well-placed electrical outlets go a long way. And sometimes we haven't figured out quite yet how to unite the different aspects of these two spaces.

Reconciling the problem of two environments: virtual and physical, will do more than simply bring students back to the library, it has the potential to deeply enrich the academic experiences of millions of students who have no idea just how much the library has to offer them.

Lippincott, J.K. (2005). Net generation students and libraries. In D.G. Oblinger & J.L. Oblinger (Eds.) Educating the Net Generation. Educause.

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