Digital Natives… Digital Whaa? Psst! That’s you dude!

A post in a local Boise blog suggests you can tell where someone lives in the city (and also their political orientation) based on what bike they ride. Strangely the bike pictured in the post is pretty reminiscent of the current ride which I pedal to work. I am not sure what to think of this post or even how seriously to take it. What I find interesting is that I don’t live in the part of the city my bike supposedly indicates I should. I might share the politics of a my fellow beach cruiser riders, but in truth economics determined the bike I ride, not who I voted for. The reality is that I couldn’t afford a fancy reliable mountain bike so settled for a beach cruiser. I live where I live because that is what the level of my paycheck (and debt) warrants (economics, again). What I take away from reading about my choice of bicycle is that generalizations can be awfully misleading and result in bad assumptions. In addition, I don’t like being pigeonholed into a political or geographic area simply because I ride certain style of bike. Dare I say, it hurts a little?

My point is stereotyping people may be convenient but it is far from accurate. This dovetails into not stereotyping library patrons and users. One of the latest buzzwords I hear which potentially stereotypes library users is the term “Digital Native” . According to the literature, “Digital Natives” are people who are supposedly “born digital” with computers in hand and a Myspace profile set up as soon as they pop out of the womb. A recent article at InsiderEd.Com titled When Digital Natives go to the Library (kudos to Resource Shelf for pointing this out to me) talked about an ALA session that included George Needam from OCLC who outlined suggestions for libraries regarding “digital natives”. A direct quote from the article provides a list of suggestions about “digital natives”:

  • Avoid implying to students that there is a single, correct way of doing things.
  • Offer online services not just through e-mail, but through instant messaging and text messaging, which many students prefer.
  • Hold LAN parties, after hours, in libraries. (These are parties where many people bring their computers to play computer games, especially those involving teams, together.)
  • Schedule support services on a 24/7/365 basis, not the hours currently in use at many college libraries, which were “set in 1963.”
  • Remember that students are much less sensitive about privacy issues than earlier generations were and are much more likely to share passwords or access to databases.
  • Look for ways to involve digital natives in designing library services and even providing them. “Expertise is more important than credentials,” he said, even credentials such as library science degrees.
  • Play more video games

For me this is all well and good, but I am reminded of a recent call for participants for a library-related survey that was asking specifically for “digital natives” to respond. I saw it advertised on local online music message board and one of the responses I saw amounted to “what the &%$! is a digital native?!?“. And this was from someone who is supposedly a “digital native” themselves. I applaud the survey for attempting this sort of outreach to library users in an attempt to provide relevant library services, but at the same time I think there was an assumption that “digital natives” were the patrons that needed “reaching” or perhaps more importantly assumed everyone (including our patrons) were reading the library literature and knew what a “digital native” was to begin with.

A strong lesson I have learned as a librarian is that just because a student/patron is using a computer, it doesn’t mean they know how to use a computer/technology. An analogy then becomes… because a student/patron has a cellphone, IM’s, plays video games, uses email, etc. that doesn’t automatically make them computer literate, technologically savvy, or for that matter a “digital native”.

Coming back to the misleading economics of bike ownership example, I think the idea of the “digital native” revisits and unintentially reinforces the concept of the digital divide. This sort of have/have-not divide between who uses technology and howthat technology is ultimately used. These differences in use and outcomes are definitely a product of economics. I have mentioned in the past that libraries seem to be the internet access point for people that lack the economic means for it elsewhere.

A recent essay by Dannah Boyd concerned the class division of MySpace (poor/”bad”) versus that of Facebook (affluent/”good”) has been getting a lot of mention on many of the websites I pay attention to. For me this is of great interest because it is not simply a monetary hardware issue but a software/website usage/access issue. So what then if a library creates a profile on Facebook? Are they then alienating a certain segement of their patrons by economics or class?

My advice (edit: for what it’s worth) to libraries and librarians is to simply talk to your patrons. Don’t assume because you read it in the literature that it is true for your community. Make the attempt to engage your patrons one on one with how they use (or want to use) the library. Second, stop with the labels. Drop “Digital Native”, GenNext, or whatever patron stereotype you are buying into. These labels cloud your thinking, don’t accurately describe your patron profile, and potentially alienate different segments of your patron population. Finally, be observant. Take the time to observe the ways patrons actually use your library and resources not just what you read. If they are playing games… great!… search for ways to tap into that. If your patrons are more MySpace than Facebook perhaps having classes exploring Myspace privacy issues or MySpace profile editing workshops. Plus there are tons of other social networking sites out there besides MySpace/Facebook and your users may be using those instead of the ones you only read about. Figure out what works for your library and your patrons.

Yes, library users have changed today compared with those 20 to 10 to even 5 years ago. But change (if anything) has always been a constant in libraries so why the panic and call for a revolution? A discussion about new and different ways patrons can use library resources is always important but don’t taint this conversation with unhelpful stereotypes. In summary: Outreach… Good! Patron Stereotypes… Bad!

More info:

When Digital Natives Go to the Library:

Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace:

Your Ride Tells it All Even with Bikes:

Digital Native Project:

More about the Digital Divide:

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Tags: digital natives, games, names, words

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