Engaging the skill set of the Millennials: a page from the librarian's book

June 16, 2015 Jill Hawthorne


Group of students using digital tablet

The Millennial Generation student consumes and interacts with information in a multiplicity of ways, at any time, in any location. Where Generation X took computer skills from study to employment, the Millennials have grown up with an array of devices – from game consoles, to computers, to smartphones, to e-readers, to tablets. They read, message, watch video, chat, blog, photograph and tweet, interrogating and assimilating data across diverse formats. The speed and flow of information empowers Millennials to research, share and learn faster. As educators, how best do we engage their skills?

Wiley’s Trina Cody and Sarah Andrus have recently blogged on Millennial (or Generation Y) e-learning preferences, outlining opportunities for societies to enhance engagement (Meeting the eLearning needs of Generation Y, Leveraging the Power of Your Brand Through Learning). How have academic libraries adjusted to this generation? Allow me to share a few reflections published in a recent review (1) on how librarians have characterized the Millennials and responded to their needs.

Knowing your customer
Library scientists have been close behind the generational theorists in developing the characterization of that cohort of customers born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. The literature depicts the Millennials as “digital natives “, a generation of library users who are also format-agnostic, nomadic, multi-tasking, experiential, collaborative, integrated, principled, adaptive and direct. They think and process information in a fundamentally different way to their predecessors and are uninspired by the technical skills of their educators.

Recognizing “satisficing” when you see it
The immediacy of online communication and gaming tends to make Millennials impatient, even by their own reckoning. High technical engagement can be accompanied by a willingness to accept “good enough” information drawn from a limited range of sources. “Satisficing” denotes the tendency to feel satisfied with their research when a sufficient answer is reached, eschewing an exhaustive search of all sources. The Baby Boomer or Generation X librarian may not be a “digital native” but lends a more linear, systematic approach to information retrieval.

Adapting for the self-servicing customer
Millennials are considered confident, and to a large extent effective, in selecting high-quality web resources. They are versatile consumers who can toggle between commercial search engines, social networking sites, bookmarked resources and electronic library services to satisfy their information needs. They are frustrated by traditional advanced search and seek customizable, convenient services. At the heart of student expectations is a sense that libraries should deliver to self-empower.

The Librarians Evolving Role
University librarians, consequently, have noted a decline in demand for traditional reference work and an expanding role as customer-centric educators. Students see them as a source of procedural or directional support over specialist subject support. Librarians are focused on providing information literacy tuition, creating and maintaining electronic resources, delivering quality learning spaces, metadata development, licensing digital material, and collecting and digitizing archival material. Librarians are seen embracing their directional, para-academic role in creative ways that suit Millennial learning styles.

Mobile Library Services
As the librarians very role has adapted to Millennial expectations, service delivery has had to catch up with a generation rapidly migrating to mobile. Librarians have polled their users and grappled with the options to adjust PC-based digital library services for smaller screens with smaller keyboard devices. What content is essential, what content lends itself to mobile, and how can presentation be simplified? Will native apps be more appropriate than a website customized for mobile? The literature suggests considerable convergence across US and UK universities in the kind of services that have migrated to mobile.

In short, librarians have been creative in keeping pace with both the behavioral changes brought on by the working and learning styles of Millennials and the technological shifts driving those changes.

(1) For more Millennial characterizations and examples of how academic librarians have striven to engage a generation, read Jills full paper:

Hawthorne, Jill L “Engaging the Skill Set of the Millennials: Librarians, Content and Technology in the Mobile Age” in QScience Proceedings, The SLA-AGC 21st Annual Conference, Abu Dhabi, 17-19 March 2015. http://www.qscience.com/doi/pdf/10.5339/qproc.2015.gsla.3

About the Author

Associate Director, International Business Development, Wiley // Working within the International Development team, my role is to identify and champion new business opportunities in high-growth and emerging markets that align with Wiley strategies. I input knowledge of local market conditions, facilitate communication and analysis, and drive implementation of agreed initiatives.

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