February 16, 2018

Born with the Chip

By Stephen Abram & Judy Luther

The next generation will profoundly impact both library service and the culture within the profession

Librarians have adapted amazingly well to the challenges of an Internet-enabled, web-dominated world. It’s been quite a ride as we worked with digital content, learned new search tools, and strived to get our many and varied systems interconnected. Now the roller coaster really begins as we deal with the next generation—those “born with the chip”—who have grown up in the 1980s with computers and don’t think of them as technology. They are part of their cultural DNA.

Given that the average librarian is a Boomer and over 50, there is a gap of one to two generations between most of the profession and a growing group of our primary users, whom we all need to understand in order to serve well. The generation in question, which some call Millennials but we’ll refer to as NextGens, is made up of people born between 1982 and 2002. At 81 million they form the largest population group since the Boomers at 87 million. The expectations and behaviors of this group will have a significant impact on the nature of the services that public and academic libraries need to plan and provide.

What follows is based on individual research, some of which is unpublished or proprietary. It is also informed by certain recent key studies published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, OCLC, Ontario Libraries Strategic Directions Council, Digital Library Federation, Council on Library and Information Resources, Outsell, and others. Although NextGens despise and reject labeling and we recognize there are exceptions based on individuality and the remaining digital divide, we have identified nine aspects of their behavior that we believe differentiate this group from its predecessors. They represent fundamental differences in the use of information, personal interactions, and social values.


Information is information, and NextGens see little difference in credibility or entertainment value between print and media formats. Their opinions can be modified and influenced by an information ocean that does not differentiate between journals and books, network or cable television, or blogs or web sites. In doing research, NextGens see little value in choosing to limit formats at the outset of an exploration or navigation when Google results include encyclopedia entries, articles, web sites, blogs, discussion threads, and PDF documents.

IMPACT: Accustomed to Google-like search engines, this generation will expect to have search results before they are required to select a source. This is the opposite of the expectation that established the skills taught to generations of researchers. Federated and broadcast search tools will be developed to meet this need. Search tools will expand to integrate text, images, sound, and streaming media. Librarians can improve the content and context of information delivered to this group by integrating the responses of queries across all formats and influencing the algorithms that display and rank results.

With digital production cheaply available to all on the web, any interest group—harmful or helpful—can publish information and make it appear authoritative. They receive information through sounds (MP3s) and moving images (MPEG and streaming media) more seamlessly and on-demand than any other generation, without the filters of networks or national regulators. Media literacy skills are essential for this generation to help them evaluate the information they find.

These multiliteracy skills inform their skills as citizens. If we fail to encourage highly formed multiliteracy skills in this generation, our democracies could be at risk. We have already seen the early results of manipulation of Google rankings in the U.S. Democratic primary race for President—especially in Howard Dean’s campaign’s use of blogs, which are valued fairly highly by Google’s algorithms. This and other types of search engine optimization (SEO) requires vigilance from users, who must question the content, diversity, and rankings of the links provided by retrieved lists.

We must prepare this generation for the real issues of the world they will live through, not the one we encountered. We must focus on helping them develop the ability to evaluate sources of information effectively to ensure that they can determine the quality of information upon which they will base life decisions.


Members of this generation expect information and entertainment to be available to them whenever they need it and wherever they are, thanks to Wi-Fi, wireless PDAs, and digital phones. After all, the web is 24/7. This expectation is about more than convenience; it indicates a major shift in behavior.

Short messaging services are growing exponentially as users have access to an extended multiplayer gaming environment. Trusted personal networks are coded into such programs as email, instant messaging (IM), screen name, and phone number lists—ready to access at the push of a button. This generation has moved far beyond downloading new ring tones into downloading applications that will be essential in their work environment.

IMPACT: Librarians need to be able to reach NextGens on their devices of choice, which operate on a wide range of standards and formats. If virtual reference doesn’t meet NextGens’ expectations, we should explore IM or other communication technologies that allow us to deliver good quality, interactive, remote information services.

The content that libraries license will need to appear on a variety of devices. Some publishers, initially in the medical field, are using the new XML standard to reformat content to properly display on a small digital phone, PDA, or a larger-screened laptop. If library services—portals, OPACs, databases, and web sites—are not accessible on the devices being used, then we risk being irrelevant in the Next-Gens’ world. Just as having no web site today renders a library invisible to the world at large, having no web-based services ready for the wireless world will render your library invisible in the coming years.


NextGens multitask as a core behavior. The packed screen that looks unfocused to the average Boomer, who probably closes unused open windows, feels natural to NextGens. The ability to integrate seamlessly and navigate multiple applications, simultaneously combining their worlds in a single environment, is a key skill of this generation. This skill is not just about running several IM conversations at the same time. Add in listening to MP3s on a PC as well as surfing the web while adding content to homework projects and assignments. This is not bad. In a noisy world, it’s a great skill to be able to multitask and focus differentially. Indeed, as MS Windows and MS Office add more applications, it will become critical for libraries to access, acquire, and adapt easily information for this next generation’s decision-making and work environments.

IMPACT: NextGens expect that all information appliances—desktop, mobile telephones, and PDAs—will support multitasking. In contrast, many libraries have chosen not to take advantage of some of their PC capabilities by 1) installing them without sound cards or speakers; 2) preventing the use of IM or email; 3) precluding the ability to use web sites that require animation enablers like Java; or 4) limiting the ability to view streaming media or run applications like Real Media, Windows Media Player, or Quicktime. Some libraries are still using ancient versions of Netscape and MS Internet Explorer.

Though some of these choices are short-term strategies to protect limited bandwidth or ensure that a number of the library PCs are available for OPAC access or database searching, NextGens who feel the constraints may conclude that the library has “stupid” PCs and opt to bypass it. Libraries should at least provide signage for the PCs that limit functionality. In the long term, we must ensure that we have the hardware that matches this generation’s needs to access information, share it, and place it into their workflow patterns simultaneously. In this respect, academic and public libraries are not alone. This is a challenge for workplaces, too.


NextGens grew up playing video, PC, PDA, and interactive games that allowed them to learn and develop skills based on their experience. These games are like the world—asynchronous, asymmetrical, and engaging. As a result, members of the next generation prefer content-rich web pages as opposed to tables-of-contents navigation for exploring content sets and domains.

Members of this generation have high-level questioning and thinking skills and lower-level prima facie knowledge (such as facts, time lines, vocabulary, and regurgitation skills). For many, their variant learning styles have been supported throughout their education. Some have been trained in mind-mapping techniques that enable them to create visual maps of their areas of exploration and define the domains, sources, and words that they might use to explore a problem or research area. For example, when asked to debate a political issue in class they might map both sides of the issue, pro and con, list interested parties or figures, outline needed statistics, name groups that might have an opinion, and more. This mind-map, accomplished on paper or in their heads before leaping into reading and research, mutates as they become more informed throughout the total process.

The amount of information in the future will double every 11 minutes by some estimates. Searching will more closely resemble exploration, navigation, and discovery—sounds like the names of the popular web browsers! In the next ten years, researchers will use video game–type interfaces to find answers to serious questions. For example, the University Health Network in Toronto, made up of over 9000 full-time medical researchers exploring some of the key medical questions of our time, is building a “database” of every person who has had leukemia in Canada since 1985. They have built a robot that can load the genetic makeup of these people into the computer environment and then explore the disease. Research continues into interface design that is likely to model “quest” game–style interfaces. A July 2003 Pew Internet & American Life Project report www.pewinternet.org/reports/index.asp) on gaming technology and entertainment showed that 65 percent of college students used games regularly, and, surprisingly, the majority of players were girls.

IMPACT: Work by two educational psychologists, Benjamin Bloom on learning styles and Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, indicates that more learning behaviors are supported by nontext interfaces than by ones that rely on text. Some of the early, recent studies of visual interfaces in the library environment show that improvements can be easily had by combining different access points and styles, including visualization features in the display and searching of databases and OPACs. An example of such studies are those by Donald Beagle at Belmont Abbey College, NC (belmont.antarctica.net/start?ap=0;ms= 10). Of course, it would be terrible if we tried to find the single interface to support all searching and learning right styles—the opportunity here is to match a greater variety of users’ searching styles.

Visual interfaces and displays, combined with some text-based searching, show great promise, and we need to experiment with these more. Many of us in the information profession are great text-based learners. For most of the rest of the world, reading is not a primary learning behavior. Many libraries have carried videos for 20 years, but NextGens expect streaming media. The digital world offers more flexibility for more formats. Visual interfaces such as Grokker (www.groxis.com) and anacubis (www.anacubis.com) offer better support for the deeper variety of collections we will be supporting in the future—e.g., streaming media, pictures, MP3s, maps, and 3-D museum objects. It seems libraries are often run by Lisa Simpsons trying to herd a crowd of Bart Simpson users. Now that the technology is ready to support more styles, we need to be willing to explore them and recognize that what worked for us won’t work as well for many of the coming generation.


The great innovation and killer app of the Internet was email, and Boomers readily adopted writing electronic letters. However, only five percent of people over 30 have an IM account, while estimates run as high as 85 percent of NextGens with at least one IM account. This could be an indicator of one of the greatest generational digital divides.

IM can involve many simultaneous conversations between two to over 20 participants. Whatever the subject of the moment, IM is interactive learning. This generation collaborates as a core ethos—e.g., in multiplayer web games, with IM, in collaboratories, virtual classrooms, and chat rooms. It is exciting to have an environment where information can be introduced and processed and where life, play, entertainment, school, and work commingle.

IMPACT: Virtual reference (VR) should allow us to communicate with NextGens in a way that more closely matches how they use technology and interact with others for research. VR does not need to be a fully blown system to succeed. In one instance, Pennsylvania State University librarians set out to deliver librarian services to at-risk students; using simple IM drove clear positive results. Our libraries increasingly serve remote users who access databases, web pages, distance education support, and portals. Too often, though, the magic of the reference librarian gets lost. VR allows us to reintroduce the reference interview, escorted browsing, and personalized research support at the point of need. The most aggressive libraries already extend this service beyond normal library hours. As an additional benefit, we learn more about our users’ needs and questions when we capture and analyze our online reference transcripts. The opportunities to develop the best Ask-a-Librarian virtual service are immense, and the coming generation is ready for it. This demand, combined with recent Gartner Group reports that over 60 percent of workplaces have enabled IM for business use, sometimes at the demand of their newest employees, illustrates the world NextGens are preparing for.


Content and technology are inseparable for NextGens. Communication technology has blurred the distinctions between private and public domains (webcams, blogs, camera phones) and learning environments and entertainment (gaming, IM).

IMPACT: The magic of librarianship is the interpersonal, professional competencies that we apply in relating our users’ information needs and experiences to organized (and disorganized) content and our services. Librarians need to be integrated with the virtual environment as coach, mentor, and information advisor. The reference interview gives context to the user’s inquiries, but even this key critical competency needs to be reconsidered. Interviewing NextGens to point them at the right information and sources is becoming less important as this group gets more and more accustomed to an increasingly self-service environment. We need to focus on how to improve the quality of the “question” asked since NextGens will continue their research investigations beyond the interaction with the library.


This generation has a well-defined value system, and NextGens express themselves by voting with their actions across the political spectrum. High levels of veganism, vegetarianism, political action, environmentalism, voluntarism, and more indicate deep thinking about how they live their lives and the principles upon which they plan to base their impact on the earth and society.

IMPACT: Many libraries are dealing with challenges to “dead tree” subscriptions, recycling demands, concerns over photocopier chemicals, requests for recycled paper in the shared printers and copiers, and even petitions for fair trade coffee beans in the coffee shop. Most of us have great sympathy for the push to better environmental behaviors, at home and at work. Although library management is challenged by limited budgets, institutional contracts, and policies, it will pay to act on our users’ concerns. If we do, a trusting relationship will develop with this emerging group.

However, and more to the core of our enterprise, we must survey alternative viewpoints and review our collection development policies. Are our collections, print and electronic, biased to mainstream media? Do we have a balance of alternative, ethnic, student, or religious viewpoints and mainstream periodicals, books, and newspapers? We’re not there yet. We should care because our users care. This is a case of doing the right things and matching customer needs.


Adaptive technology library specialist Jutta Treviranus, director of the Resource Centre for Academic Technology at the University of Toronto, estimates that 15 percent of their university population requires some form of adaptive technology (to cope with everything from blindness through print disabilities and ADD/ ADHD). It is fair, and arguably the law, that this generation’s libraries provide the tools for them to access learning effectively. In contrast to any previous generation, this one has been tested and diagnosed for physical and learning challenges. Many effective and successful practices have been developed to overcome their challenges, and they are knowledgeable about what adaptations they may require to succeed. A reading disability need no longer be a barrier to learning at any level.

IMPACT: The University of Toronto has long-term plans and short-term action plans to deliver all university services (including library services) to all students, staff, and faculty with tools to mitigate, as much as possible, any disability. The plan involves storing dozens of adaptive technologies and software on the central server to be invoked with the use of an ID card—which will be encoded with the adaptations necessary to improve each user’s university experience.

We need to move beyond simple IP authentication systems for equitable access to our libraries’ rich resources of databases, indexes, OPACs, and VR. College and university libraries will need to engage in much richer partnerships with their institutions to add functionality to student, staff, and faculty identification cards and then use them to improve the user’s library experience.


This generation demands respect and finds no need to beg for good service. In general, they are direct communicators, neither rude nor obsequious, just direct. On the positive side, they will ask for help. On the negative side, they will express dissatisfaction with services that do not meet expectations.

IMPACT: We have had many conversations with public and academic librarians who commiserate that they are distressed at the higher expectations of their users and the lack of budgets to meet them. Libraries are going to have to reexamine services and look for opportunities to shift resources and change or stop doing some things.

Librarians’ distress is compounded by widely divergent communication styles between most library staff members and the rapidly growing population of NextGens. We have already trained many of our staff in cultural and racial sensitivity as well as gender sensitivity and antisexual harassment. Extra sensitivity to cross-generational issues is now needed. This may simply mean adding training for both Next-Gens (facts, soft skills) and Boomers (IM, VR, etc.). Shoring up both will pay off in the long run.

The challenge of change

These nine impact factors provide insights into the coming generation: their expectations for using information (format agnostic, nomadic, multitasking); their learning behaviors (experiential, collaborative, integrated); their beliefs (principled, adaptive, direct). David Penniman, dean of the School of Informatics, University at Buffalo, NY, once said, “In order for the library to remain what it is, it must change. If it doesn’t change it will not remain what it is.” This next generation will challenge libraries in ways undreamt of today, likely in ways greater than the challenge of the Internet, as we seek to meet the needs of a new generation of users. Some libraries are already beginning to adapt, others are not.

They are coming. We had better be ready.

Author Information
Stephen Abram, MLS, Incoming President of the Canadian Library Association, is Vice President of Innovation for Sirsi Corporation, Huntsville, AL. Judy Luther, MLS, is President of Informed Strategies, Ardmore, PA