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Millennials, Librarians, and Conferences

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in the last year. Big ones and teeny ones, local ones and far away ones. And based on all this field research, I’ve just realized that I committed a major faux pas when I gave my talk this week. I never once mentioned Millennials. I wish to apologize for this oversight and plead for forgiveness based on the defense that I didn’t know what I was doing (obviously). Henceforth I promise to either talk about this new breed of human or come up with a very good reason for not talking about them.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m getting a little tired of the hue and cry. These kids are … well … kids. And just like every other generation of kids, they have needs and they have desires. And just like every other generation of librarians, we have to figure out what our users’ needs are and fill those needs, individual by individual and group by group. We also have to figure out what our users’ desires are, and cater to as many as are possible within the realm of reason and as many as are helpful.

Personally, I think saying things like,

“I’ll be doing a few panels of Millennials in the coming months. I always enjoy talking to these people and their insights and thoughtfulness always impresses.” (Stephen’s Lighthouse)

is not helpful. Don’t get me wrong Stephen has a lot of really good stuff to say. I admire the fact that he’s working hard not only to find ways of serving library users as well as possible, but also to push other librarians to do the same. But speaking of kids as if they’re aliens is, I think, counter-productive. In these sentences, “Millennials” becomes a term to describe a group that are completely separate, completely Other.

The two sentences I’ve quoted (found in a post that highlights some very interesting and useful information about his demographic sample) are pretty typical of what I call “Millennial Discomfort.” This disease is taking the library (and IT and education) world by storm. It’s reaching epidemic proportions.

Lets face it: there’s another generation running around, and eventually they will take over the world. In the mean time, we need to do exactly what we’ve done for generations upon generations… figure out what we can do to make sure they survive and flourish.

So instead of learning about and using MySpace, Flickr, del.icio.us, and all the rest because the Millennials are doing it (doesn’t that sound oh so middle-school-ish), let’s start learning and using these services because they’re useful and fun for our users and ourselves. Let’s learn as much as we can from the web services people like or the information seeking habits people have. Let’s remember that there are lots and lots of kids who are NOT tech savvy. And let’s remember that those kids who are tech savvy are not necessarily savvy in deciphering and leveraging the meaning, rhetoric, implications, or sometimes even the basic content of the information they take in. Let’s spend that proportion of conferences devoted to cries of “The Millennials are coming! The Millennials are coming!” and rededicate that time to learning from each other about new processes, best practices, and yes, even some of my beloved theoretical underpinnings. We can do it. I KNOW we can. There’s so much to talk about, think about, and do.

It’s been a weird week… I’ll step off my soap box now.

8 thoughts on “Millennials, Librarians, and Conferences

  1. As a Millennial (just barely, depending on which definition you use), I am not at all offended that you failed to mention us. In fact, I didn’t even notice until you mentioned the fact.

    Standard disclaimer: even though some of us Millennials can legally purchase a six-pack, most of us have not yet graduated from high school. (I read that the largest segment of the Millennial generation was born from 1989-1994.)

    It’s so true: by the time we finish figuring out the Millennials (as information seekers and users), the Millennials will be trying to figure out their successors.

    Even though I’m a Millennial, most of what I know about social software came from library conferences and the biblioblogosphere, and not from my Millennial peers. I didn’t have a MySpace account until a few months ago, and I only got one to see what the hype was all about. I hadn’t even heard of MySpace until it was a few years old.

    As I mentioned before, the Millennials aren’t coming; I’m one of the ones who’s already here.

  2. Thank you Iris! The whole generations thing drives me crazy, but you encapsulated the forward march of the generations quite well. And as Julian says, they *are* already here. Thankfully!

  3. You’re both right, the Millennials ARE here. I’m even one of them, by some people’s calculations. And I’ve gotta say, I’m not very scary… And I’ve met you, Julian, and you’re not very scary… :)

    The very first time I encountered this generations thing was at the first conference I attended. My college was actually hosting it, and it was within my first 6 weeks of work. My co-workers and I (most of whom are on the younger side of 35) were completely baffled by the first keynote presentation because all he did was rattle off stuff about this new species of human that was coming to take over the world.

    After the conference, James Elmborg stayed for half a day to work with us. (This meeting still stands out as one of the very brightest highlights of my year, btw.) He asked us what we thought of that presentation, and introduced us, for the very first time, to the concept that many librarians are actually scared of this new generation. I didn’t really believe him at the time, but since then I’ve decided he must be right. No group would spend so much time talking about “them” if there wasn’t an element of fear.

    Here’s something to be afraid of: we’re in danger of spending so much time worrying about not being relevant that we’ll fail to actually make ourselves relevant. Like you said, Julian, “by the time we finish figuring out the Millennials …, the Millennials will be trying to figure out their successors.”

  4. I love this post! So well said. The tools may be different for each generation but as you point out, it all comes down to meeting the needs of our customers. Isn’t the nature of every new generation to help lead us to the future? I would have loved to hear what they were saying at conferences about the boomers when they were storming Chicago or marching on the Mall … now that might have scared some people! lol.

  5. Hi Nancy. That’s exactly right! And maybe those focused on marketing have a leg up on the rest of us because that’s what marketing is: finding needs and meeting them (or creating needs, as the case may be…LOL).

    I can’t wait to hear Millennials start obsessing about post-Millennials. I wonder what the “great divide” will be at that point.

  6. Great post, Iris. I like your point about checking tools about for their sake, rather than just because millenials (or whoever) are using them. I just got myself a MySpace account. Now I got to get me some friends. ;P

  7. I’m not on MySpace yet, CW, and don’t know if I will join any time soon. I opted for Facebook, since I’m on a college campus. And so far it’s enough for me to cultivate a presence in one space, let alone two. There’s nothing like entering a new place like this to make you feel all friendless. :) So far the only people who’ve posted to my Facebook account are my college-aged siblings, one college-aged cousin, and one other librarian. Mostly it’s my brother and sister, though.

  8. I checked Facebook out, but couldn’t work out if my alma mater is included, being Australian. On the other hand, my mentor just mentioned that he’s been looking at Facebook lately, and he’s in .au too, so maybe I need to take a closer look…

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