There’s been a lot talk about the so-called Millennial generation the past few years.
Radical Millennialist librarians often make sound recommendations, for example that libraries should provide better and more various services and that OPACs can be made more customizable. I think those are great ideas. My disagreement with the most radical of the Millennialist camp, and the Millennial rhetoric in general, is not that libraries shouldn’t change or adapt, and even adapt quickly, but that the revolutionary rhetoric goes too far. Some librarians talk about “reinventing” everything these days, but reinventing the library might be as foolish as reinventing the wheel.
We have an obligation to integrate today’s students into a culture of research and learning. Adapting ourselves to current communication styles is fine as long as we remember that. We should know our ends so we can choose our means. We should always ask ourselves what we lose by scrapping the way we have done things. A healthy attitude to change doesn’t involve reinventing everything every generation, but always reevaluating what we have and deciding whether to keep it, keeping the best and discarding the rest.
Making the OPAC more user-friendly should of course be done. It’s not like there’s a great tradition behind OPACs. They’ve always been bad. But it would be different to abandon classification schemes or ignore the complexity of scholarly research just because one can’t do it on Google.
One of the most flawed analogies frequently made about college students these days is that they are customers or consumers. Millennials are customers who are used to getting things fast and now and they get impatient if they have to wait. Certainly college students or their parents are paying for something, but are they consumers in the ordinary sense?
So the Millennials want everything fast and now. Instead of reinventing ourselves completely to try to cater to their expectations of instant gratification, perhaps we should try instead to altar their unrealistic expectations. Scholarly research does not offer instant gratification. Instant gratification must always be shallow gratification. The gratification that comes from researching a topic, formulating a claim, and making an argument is never instant. On the other hand, neither is it fleeting, as instant gratifications often are. By including students in the culture of scholarship, we are instead offering them the lasting gratification of knowledge and skill that comes with mastering a topic, however small that topic may be.
Let us also consider whether we should think of college students as consumers. The implication is that the customer is always right. Consumers know what they want and they’re paying to get it and they don’t want any argument. But do we benefit anyone by thinking of college students this way? Is the customer always right? Does this not imply that the customers already know what they want?
I think it does, which is why I think the analogy breaks down. Students may indeed come to college thinking they know what they want. But can we really believe that 18-year-olds have enough knowledge of the world and its possibilities, especially its intellectual possibilities, to already know what they want? Is this very realistic? Or is it more likely that students come to college to learn, or that at least ideally that’s why they come to college. If college students are consumers, just what is it they’re consuming? Is it what they want when they want it? Or is it the knowledge and expertise of those who know more than they do and who guide them?
The claim that we should completely reinvent libraries for every generation is no more plausible on the surface than the counter-claim that we should seek to integrate each generation into the best traditions of our culture. The competing claims are: 1) Every new generation is superior to what has gone before and we have to adapt to them; and 2) What has gone before has been built up over generations, reformed, improved, and that the desire of youth to start over could be motivated by their lack of understanding of what exists and why.
Before we reinvent the research library, shouldn’t we at least ask what it does well, and why it does what it does? Shouldn’t we ask, if we are going to reinvent ourselves every generation, how can we possibly progress? The question isn’t necessarily whether we should attempt new ways to communicate with the Millennial students. Of course we should. The question is why. Why are we trying new ways to communicate with the current generation of college students? Is it just to deliver to them everything they think they want, or to integrate them into the tradition of research, scholarship, and thought.
Libraries should be stimulating environments, but do we stimulate students by creating an illusion of seamlessness, or by revealing the challenges of research and learning? Are we here just to solve problems for students, or to give them problems to solve? Are we here to hide complications, or to show how complicated the world can be?
Library research is complicated, and it likely will be for a long time, and it’s not because librarians want it to be that way. We can adapt and change all we want, but that doesn’t mean that vendors and publishers aren’t going to keep protecting their copyrighted content or that everything will be easily accessible from one interface. We can work hard to make research appear seamless, but it’s not and possibly never will be. As long as the information world is as complicated as it now is, librarians can only try to make things more accessible, not reinvent the world through an information revolution.