Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Millennials: the Future Library Workforce

I enjoyed the event at the State Library of Victoria last night featuring three Generation Y speakers - also called millennials. These are people born from 1978 to 2000 according to the Wikipedia. In other words, they are aged from 7 to 29. However, some of them keep moving the date so they will stay in the group, and it has been taken back as far as 1970. This process should indicate one of the keys to understanding the concept of Generation Y - i.e. the fact that it may hide a semantic vacuum (I think I might have another post on the semantic vacuum, such an interesting concept). ALIA supported the event.

The question was asked, and answered: how do young people like to work, what motivates them and how can managers attract and retain them? The three presenters were Andrew Finegan, a Darwin librarian, Lili Wilkinson, a Victorian writer of youth literature working at the State Library of Victoria's Centre for Youth Literature, and Benjamin Tan, an Arts/Student active in the Oaktree Foundation (no blog).

The session was for "managers in the library and information professions" and perhaps for millennials themselves, although the former outnumbered the latter.

I summed up by quoting the famous Italian proverb - "We learn by making mistakes, like the doctors do" ("Imparo sbagliando, come i medici") The session demonstrated the quite unfair proliferation of stereoptypes whenever librarians and libraries are mentioned - it seems that we cannot escape them. And terms like Generation Y and Millennials are stereotypes themselves - I guess that a Generation Y librarian might feel stereotypes crowding in a little

Here's what the Urban Dictionary says about stereotypes:

"A stereotype is used to categorize a group of people. People don't understand that type of person, so they put them into classifications, thinking that everyone who is that needs to be like that, or anyone who acts like their classifications is one.

Stereotype for Goths are black clothes, black makeup, depressed, hated by society.
Stereotype for Punks are mohawks, spikes, chains, menace to society, always getting in trouble."

You can add your own line if you like
"Stereotype for Librarians are . . ."
"Stereotype for Generation Y librarians are . . ."

This is not a competition, but please feel free to contribute. (Please do not post to this blog pointing out errors of grammar or syntax in the Urban Dictionary).

I suspect that it is not necessary to create a new concept, Generation Y (impatient, vocal, mobile, outspoken, technologically native, high maintenance, cool, show-offs, not from Frankston) to account for these characteristics in a group of articulate, ambitious and vocal young people.

In the end, as I suggested, despite the identity issues which exist for contemporary library workers, there is a very important set of values which should characterise people who work in libraries, values relating to the free flow of information, equitable access to information, sceptical about copyright and other statutory restrictions, supportive of diversity and pluralism, collaborative and community-focussed.

We are probably destined to live with stereotypes too. Declining attention spans and the dominance of the media with its dramatic tendency to oversimplify and trivialise mean that the stereotype has become a common currency for much of our communication. We cannot develop new library stereotypes which appeal to everyone. As I suggested, three year old boys admire what is big and red, but we can't re-brand everything that way without alienating those people who like their libraries homely and muted, or stylish and hip, or something else other than red.

Disclaimer: I am from Frankston.


Bec said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bec said...

I was one of the few ‘millennials’ at this event, and I agree that the session was marked by its liberal sprinkling of stereotypes. I’m a millennial, a librarian and a woman, which brands me with three stereotypes before I even walk into a room, so I’m interested that not one of the speakers decided to engage with the idea of the stereotype as bunk. For starters, the ‘millennials’ stereotype aims to cover too much ground. The idea that most of us have of Generation Y is that it doesn’t remember life before the Web, and as a consequence is lacking in a) social skills, and b) an attention span, since if Generation Y gets bored it just switches off. My date of birth puts me smack bang in the middle of the Gen Y boundaries, but I remember the first day I saw the Web (I was in Year 7 and in the school library watching Netscape load one frame an hour) and I even remember the days before nearly every home had (at least) one PC.

I didn’t feel particularly well represented by the description of how Generation Y functions in the workplace. I think Lili’s point that we need to encourage secondary school work experience students to come to work in a library by giving them a task that is tangible, online and accessible to can show their friends and family was very valid. I was pleased that her perspective on what millennials want from their job in a library involves engaging with the needs of our users. I agree with your assumption, Derek, that the core elements of good librarianship are ageless, and as a millennial librarian, it is my responsibility to adapt them to fit a new era and continue to stay in touch with our users.

I’m wandering a bit off-topic here (is that a millennial trait?) but I think it’s interesting to review the results of this survey conducted by Edward Hirst from the Rowan Public Library in North Carolina: They are significant because they indicate that librarians in favour of Second Life and other virtual worlds (apparently millennial fascinations) in libraries fall overwhelmingly in the 36-50 age bracket. Arguably this is hardly surprising; a brief article in The Age about a month ago (sorry I read it in the print version so I don’t have a link but anyone interested can come and visit my wall) reported that 65 percent of librarians are over the age of 45.

Yet if the most enthusiastic supporters of virtual worlds in libraries are in this age group, how do we really know that this is what ‘millennials’ want from their libraries? I ask every so-called millennial I meet if they think Second Life and Facebook belong in libraries and they think I’m mad. They ask, why would libraries want to be involved in that? I’m a bit concerned that library theory talks about us moving towards a ‘user-centric model’ like it’s a new thing, when surely the purpose of the library has always been to serve its users? If the new ‘user-centric models’ consist of bringing libraries to Second Life and Facebook, while well-intentioned, we may be even further away from the needs of our users that ever. The (anonymous) comment from the above survey ‘Libraries in the virtual world would provide great opportunities to meet gamers and millennials at their point of need’ illustrates my point exactly … as it is clearly written by someone who isn’t a millennial.

The answer to finding out what millennials want, both from their libraries and their jobs, can only be found by listening to us. But then, once again, this will be a representative stereotype and I suppose we'll have to learn to work within it.