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Digital Natives and Recent Grads

Someone commenting on this post claimed that ads for some jobs in Australian libraries are looking specifically for “digital natives,” leading to some discussion of age discrimination.

I’m bringing it up because it seems related in a way to the add discussed in the previous post wanting only new or very recent MLS graduates.

I haven’t seen any of these Australian job ads asking for “digital natives.” I tried to track some down, but searching for library jobs in Australia apparently isn’t on my list of competencies, and the ROI for learning how wasn’t high enough.

If anyone has evidence of such jobs, let me know. Until then, I’m proceeding as if there are such jobs.

We have just seen an example of a job that doesn’t require an MLS, but any candidates who do possess such a degree must have acquired it since 2010. These are different sorts of discriminatory requirements to examine.

First of all, any requirement for “digital natives” is clearly age discrimination. “Digital native” might be a dubious category, but as it’s usually used the phrase won’t include anyone older than about 30.

By the way, I did try to track down a good definition, but the source that’s often so good on popular subjects is terrible on Digital Native. Not only is it poorly referenced and incoherent, the writing fails even to achieve the competent blandness so typical in Wikipedia.

Example: “Digital Natives term is synonymous with the term Digital Inclusion. Being digitally included means that you are innately able in using a smartphone or computer tablets.”

Did a digital native write that? If so, they might be “innately able in using a smartphone,” which sounds like they’re handed an iPhone as they exit the birth canal and immediately start checking their stocks and playing Angry Birds. However, they’re definitely not innately able in using the English language.

The Wikipedia writer(s) agree. “Nobody is ‘born digital’; as with any cultural technology, such as reading and writing, it is matter of access to education and experience.” I suppose it is matter of access to education and experience.

It’s relevant, though, because any job ad using the phrase is definitely stating a preference for people in their 20s, regardless of whether people who are “digital immigrants” might do a better job.

In job ads, “digital native” could become the next “enthusiastic,” only much less ambiguous about the age discrimination.

Requiring an MLS earned since 2010 isn’t necessarily about age discrimination. Although I understand library school students are younger on average than they were many years ago, there are still plenty of older or second-career people who graduate from library school into their 50s, and possibly older.

Thus, it would be possible to have someone who’s 50 years old but with a recent MLS, but “recent MLS” can easily be interpreted as a code word for “young,” since the emphasis is on newness and freshness.

They can’t just come out and say that want younger people, but that’s one implication.

Let’s think about who gets screwed in all this.

The first category is older librarians. Any job emphasizing freshness over experience is going to discriminate against older librarians, regardless of their qualifications or even the freshness of their library degree. They won’t even make it to an interview.

But the group who probably loses out more are those librarians who couldn’t get a job quickly after library school. If this became a trend, and hopefully it won’t, getting a library job would be even more of a crap shoot than it already is.

The lessons from these kinds of ads are clear. First, don’t get old. Second, get a job quickly after library school or else. Neither are very comforting.



  1. Practically speaking there is a lot to be said for staff diversity in a library. If a library serves a diverse community, it should have a staff that mirrors that diversity. This has always been a significant problem in librarianship. Our profession tends to be older and white. For a variety of reasons, many people get into library work as a second profession. That makes it older. The truth is America has always valued youth. Remember the 60s catch phrase…”don’t trust anyone over 30.” Youth is especially valued today because the digital natives have created their own electronic culture with its own set of social mores. If librarianship is to evolve, we need the digital native librarians to access that unique culture. We cannot continue to be shut out from that world. In the name of diversity, I see nothing wrong with targeting digital natives in a candidate search. We do it all the time for race.

    • Clara Strom says:

      IF targeting employees for diversity was EQUALLY practiced across EVERY profession, in EVERY field that might be okay, but it isn’t. Translation: don’t apply if you are white and over 30. I am a recent MLIS graduate AND digitally literate, but I’m not under 30. I am thankful that my current employer didn’t hold such discriminating views or I wouldn’t be teaching computer literacy classes and teaching patrons to use their e-readers every day.

    • James White says:

      Will, digital natives don’t exist. The idea that there is some sort of cognitive difference between younger people and how they use technology and odler people and how they use technology is just false. I mean, the idea was originally published in 2001 – the original digital natives are in their mid-forties now.

      The idea that the young have created their own socila mores and so we need to hire them to be able to get involved is weird and defeatist. Tumblr doesn’t care how old you are, and learning to be polite in online forums is not difficult.

    • I’ve been involved in the library profession for over 40 years and my distinct impressionistic observation (I haven’t done any research) is that this new generation is different. Their tribal practices are quite unique. We need to hire them and give them the freedom to forge new user connections. We talk about celebrating diversity, and now it’s time to practice it.

    • younger librarian says:

      I turn 30 in about a month (yikes!) and I am the youngest full-time librarian in Adult Services at my library (this comprises two departments: Reference and Reader’s Services and probably more than 30 librarians). There are only two librarians in Adult Services who are around my age and only a handful in Youth Services under the age of 40.

      My coworkers are digitally literate and quite competent at their jobs but they are very reluctant with social media, new marketing techniques, and with incorporating new technology into our programming (their idea of a makerspace was basically a knitting circle). I feel like most of my older colleagues just don’t understand how younger people use technology and they are dismissive of the younger librarians because we haven’t been in the industry long enough to know “how things work here.”

      I don’t want to be ageist but younger generations approach technology different from older generations. Obviously hiring based on age is horrible but, as Will said, older librarians do need to recognize that we have unique perspectives to offer the library and you need to give us freedom to use technology in a way that works for us.

    • MedLibrarian says:

      I would also like to disagree that “digital natives” do not exist. Sure, someone older than 30 may be very computer literate but there are many differences between their approach to and use of technology. I am just turning 30 and I can already see a difference between my approach and use and that of someone who is 20.

  2. There are no hard and fast rules about inclusion into the “digital native” class. Johnny 5 of Short Circuit fame is undoubtedly a member and has to be older than 30 at this point.

  3. The “digital native” idea does have a lot to do with education. My wife is a school librarian and she teaches a class to Pre-K students about using iPads. When you’re taught to use technology from the age of 4 you have a much better chance of being adept at it. The idea though that if you were born after 1985 you automatically have some kind of digital gene is just ridiculous.

    I think it’s more confidence than anything else. Any librarian who has helped college students can tell you that their confidence level in performing effective internet searches far exceeds their actual ability.

  4. The thing is, everyone was taught to use technology from an early age. For me, it was Radio Shack TRS-80 and Apple IIe. That 4-year old learning how to use an ipad is going to be using entirely different technology when she is looking for a job 20 years hence.

    • It’s not about specifically using an iPad. It’s just being exposed to using technology on a regular basis as it evolves. You may have been exposed to technology as a kid but this statement just isn’t true: “everyone was taught to use technology from an early age”. A lot of pre-80s kids didn’t have that same experience.

  5. Just some food for thought:

    “Young Vs. Old: Who Performs More Consistently?”

  6. One example that I found helpful in understanding the “digital native” term was the concept of “digital native vs. digital immigrant.” The analogy being someone born in a country is more familiar with that place’s norms and customs than someone immigrating in as an adult. Similarly, people born around computers are more familiar/comfortable around them than people who were introduced to them as adults. But that certainly doesn’t mean that a digital immigrant (or actual immigrant) can’t learn as much as (or be as savvy as) a native. It just means they were exposed to the same thing at different times in their lives.

  7. I now realize you already mentioned “digital immigrants” in the post…that will teach me to not skim before commenting…

  8. Actually me, it IS true that everyone among the poplulation we are talking about was exposed to technology. Pencils on paper is technology. A calculator is technology. My argument is that technology is going to be different when you are 20 years older.

    • I see what you’re saying. You’re having trouble with the “reply” technology in blogs. Good thing you made the argument that technology will be different in 20 years, I had no idea.

  9. Me, the Reply button does not work for me within the browser I am using at the moment. Jerk.

  10. It is nice to have a diversity of ages on staff, and also talents, culture, and experience. However, when you advertise a job you can only ask for skills, experience, and education. There are digital immigrants with social media skills and there are digital natives that are crap at finding anything on the Internet if they have to do more than one search to get there. Being born recently may improve your chances of having social media skills and computing skills, but it does not guarantee it. And AL is right that to ask for digital natives is not legal at this time. Identify the skills this person should have, and when digital natives apply you can hire them if they are the best fit for your organization.

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