Screenagers Focus on Info Seeking

May 27, 2006 at 12:03 am 5 comments

I’ve been wanting to follow-up on my previous post about “screenagers.” I am a Co-Principal Investigator (with Lynn Sillipigni of OCLC) of an IMLS grant “Seeking Synchronicity” designed to study virtual reference services (VRS) from user, non-user, and librarian viewpoints. Now in Phase I of the grant, we’re in the midst of a series of focus groups, so far having completed 6 focus groups: 4 with non-users of VRS (3 with teens from 12-18 years old, 1 with college students); and 2 with VRS librarians. Soon to come are 2 groups of VRS users.

The series of 3 focus groups with teens just concluded on May 15th at Elizabeth Public Library, NJ where the Library Garden’s own Kimberly Paone directs both YA and adult reference services. The other teen groups were held in a rural public library (Denton, Maryland) and a suburban high school (Springfield Township, PA). I want to share some preliminary impressions from these focus groups (stay tuned for a formal paper).

We asked the teens about their information seeking behaviors (“Where do you go for help when you are stuck in an assignment?”) For 2 of the 3 groups, not surprisingly, their #1 choice is Google. Few bothered to check any info found on Google, it was assumed to be correct unless their “intuition” urged them to fact check. They also frequently ask classmates for homework help (but usually only the “smart ones,” they said, of course).

The other group, from the high school, was more likely to go to their Springfield Township Virtual Library website to use databases or to ask their stellar librarian, Joyce Valenza for help. They regarded Google as convenient, but not as credible as articles found in databases. At Elizabeth PL, the students preferred face-to-face interactions with Kimberly Paone to any other form of communication with a librarian (e.g., phone, email, or chat). Some preferred to find information on their own through flailing around on Google or other search engines or in the library’s online catalog. Most carry cell phones but most were unaware that the library had a phone reference service (!) One admitted to being unaware that the library had a web page.

Across all three focus groups, most teens were regular library users and all but a few were Instant Messenger users. When asked why they did not try live chat with librarians, most said that they were unaware that these services existed. All groups were also extremely wary of chat situations as being potentially unsafe. These unknown and unfamiliar chat librarians were seen as potential “psycho killers” (yes, that’s a quote!).

Many teens expressed the concern that the librarians in chat would not be interested in them or in their questions and might not have the right information for their school assignments. They clearly treasured the one-on-one personal relationships they had developed with their librarians and most were unwilling to give chat a try. When told that live chat reference was 24/7 in Maryland and NJ (PA is starting a statewide chat service in the near future) some eyebrows shot up as they liked this idea since some prefer to do homework late at night.

Interesting stuff? These focus groups are collecting preliminary information to help design online surveys and telephone interviews that will be conducted with large national samples, so more generalizable results are to come!


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  • 1. LibraryTavern Liz  |  May 27, 2006 at 8:30 am

    My comment isn’t about virtual reference for teens, but about PA’s planned 24/7 service.

    Yes, the state of PA is starting a 24/7 virtual reference service. The pilot is to take place this summer, with the service starting in the fall. This service is to be for ALL types of library patrons, which means it includes academic libraries. I think that it’s a great idea to start something. Unfortunately, this service (ASK HERE PA, I think it is to be called) is coming from the state down to us–meaning that librarians in academic libraries had no say in it, but we are being asked to volunteer for it. There is also mention of contracting some of this work out to others. Since this is our bargaining unit work, this is problematic. Stay tuned.

  • 2. Marie L. Radford  |  May 27, 2006 at 11:58 am


    Thanks so much for adding this information to my post. I had heard that PA would be starting a service, but I didn’t know it was going to be starting this fall.

    Our grant project is looking at VRS for all age groups, but I’ve been commenting on the teens because we’ve gotten interesting results from the focus groups with them.

    We are also reviewing a large number of chat transcripts (so far 450, but going to over 1300 by the end of the grant period in July ’07).

  • 3. Michelle Kowalsky  |  June 2, 2006 at 8:17 am

    Marie, great study! I’d be interested to hear about your findings. . . My students report that they don’t want us “taking over” the tech tools they use outside of school, or “polluting” them by using IM or forums, for example, for schoolwork. Your observation of their reluctance to engage with us through these tools is accurate from our view also.

  • 4. Marie L. Radford  |  June 9, 2006 at 7:55 pm

    Here’s the book that 1st used the term “screenagers” according to the wikipedia:

    Rushkoff, D. (1996). Playing the future: What we can learn from digital kids. NY: HarperCollins.

  • 5. Anonymous  |  June 21, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    These results sound very similar to what Joe Thompson and Louise Greene discovered when they interviewed teens back in 2004. I am looking forward to seeing you at one of the Research Programs in New Orleans, Marie!

    Laura Kortz

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