The Millennial Generation and Libraries: An Interview with Richard Sweeney of NJIT

December 17, 2006 at 12:23 pm

Richard Sweeney University Librarian of the Robert W. Van Houten Library of New Jersey Institute of Technology graciously agreed to be interviewed recently by myself and Robert Lackie for Library Garden. His contact information and biosketch are found below. Here’s how the interview evolved over several emails.

Thanks so much Richard for being willing to be interviewed for the Library Garden blog. We were fascinated by Richard’s presentation about the Millennial Generation at the New Jersey joint SLA chapter meeting with the New Jersey SLA and the Princeton-Trenton SLA Chapters held at Rutgers University this fall and were interested in learning more about your findings in conducting a series of focus groups with members of the Millennial Generation (born from 1979 to 1994). So we have a few questions for you. To start off, with all your research on the Millennial Generation what do you think are the most critical differences between this generation and previous generations?

Richard Sweeney: There are quite a few important Millennial behaviors. Perhaps the most important behavior is that they expect /demand many more choices (more selectivity and variety) in their consumer products and services. They have had a wide array of selectivity from birth and they expect it. For instance, they don’t have a generational music any longer because they have so many musical choices available to them and they do not have the need to conform. They want more personalization and customization in their products and services, once they are selected. Another behavioral difference is that expect instant gratification; they have no patience; they try to pack as much as they can into their day. This drives their multitasking, instant messaging, text messaging, collaboration and online just-in-time access from anywhere. They are experiential learners, preferring to learn by trial and error, and by doing rather than by being told. They are reading literature less and newspapers far less than other generations at the same age. There are 30 or so behavioral characteristics that I have discovered and most of these hold up with U.S. college students regardless of where or who. They are more open to change, they have more friends and they communicate with them more frequently. They are better collaborators, although they may not always actually prefer doing so.

Robert: Wow—these behavioral characteristics you describe certainly do seem to fit our undergraduate student population here at Rider University, too, as well as my own Millennial son. “Multitasking” is definitely a very descriptive word for this group, and library and teaching faculty here also describe them as a “wired-in group” that “want to be successful, and if not in the classroom, then socially.” We concluded in a recent faculty/staff development session here that we must invite Millennials to participate, be involved, and learn along with us. We certainly can learn from their general ability to quickly change and adapt to technology and its effect on their surroundings—it is a stimulating world we live in.

Marie: Well, reading Richard’s biosketch below, and since I have a 16 year old daughter, it is evident that all three of us have Millennial children which gives us a “close up and personal” view of this generation. Richard, your findings also certainly resonate with findings from recent focus groups I have conducted with the youngest members of this fascinating group (which I have referred to as “screenagers”) from rural, urban, and suburban areas as part of my IMLS grant “Seeking Synchronicity” that studies virtual reference. The teens I interviewed use libraries, but not virtual reference services, and trust Google, their own ability to search for information and to evaluate that information above the professional librarian’s abilities. They rarely check information found in Google against authoritative sources. They also spend large amounts of their time online or in gaming environments and often choose to learn by trial and error. Static library websites that are difficult to navigate and jargon laden just don’t cut it.

Marie and Robert: As a librarian, what is the most exciting thing you have learned about Millennials?

Richard Sweeney: Millennials love to learn by doing, by exploring, by discovery (on their own as well as peer-to-peer). I am excited about the opportunities to change libraries and higher education institutions into learning infrastructures with many more options preferable to Millennials. For instance, learning management systems such as Blackboard or WebCT, currently do not promote and facilitate peer-to-peer learning, learning by doing. Neither do library databases, such as ABI Inform or Business Source Premier, to name just two. They are geared more toward individual self-paced presentations and searches. The way students are learning has not yet fundamentally changed the way in which the pedagogy occurs. They require continuous feedback and interactivity, much more than they typically get in libraries. In short, the databases in libraries don’t know who the user is, do not change or adapt to him/her and do not speed up their learning/searching based upon past experience. They are dumb. Libraries have a role, and always have, in self learning and peer-to-peer learning. We have not done a very good job of creating a library learning infrastructure that specifically supports technologies that will exploit user behaviors to their own benefit. Perhaps Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 will do so.

Robert: Yes, course management/learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT (which, by the way, are soon to be integrated) still need some work, and we found that was very true when they were used to teach online-only courses. About library databases, providing plenty of hands-on opportunity with our databases within our research instruction sessions does seem to be appreciated by the Millennials, as they get quickly bored with our lecture/demonstrations. We know, however, that using active learning techniques with our instruction sessions is not enough, so we are exploring best practices for Web 2.0 technologies within the library. An expert guide on this that we have found very useful is the July/August 2006 Library Technology Reports (Vol. 42, No. 4) by Michael Stephens, entitled “Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software.”

Marie: I also agree that libraries should offer a variety of digital resources and venues for reference service that allow the Millennials to choose how they want to interact with librarians. Research by De Groote (2005) at the Library of the Health Sciences reference desk at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that chat reference was used most often by undergraduates (35%), email reference by graduate students (34%), and phone reference by faculty/staff (39%). One lesson here is to offer a range of reference services to meet the different needs of users. [See: De Groot, S. L. (summer, 2005). Questions asked at the virtual and physical health sciences reference desk: How do they compare and what do they tell us? Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 24 (2), 11-23.]

Marie and Robert: What are the most critical implications of your findings for librarians and library service in the present and in the future?

Richard Sweeney: Librarians can no longer think of themselves as primarily managers of collections of static documents (books, DVDs, CDs, remote databases, etc.). Libraries are fundamentally about learning, especially self learning and peer-to-peer learning. We must play a larger role in motivating and accelerating our user/patron learning, whether we are in public libraries, special libraries, academic libraries, or school libraries, etc. We need to embrace dynamic documents and allow for dynamic catalogs. This library catalog does not know nor keep track of my past uses, nor preferences. The library catalog does not let me leave notes for my friends about some books that I read and enjoyed. The electronic databases do not let me attach related citations that I think are relevant and see them whenever I would do a new search on that subject. Librarians have to see themselves not (just) as someone who works in a library, or someone who is essentially a bibliophile or even someone who helps to dispense information, or a tutor about how to find relevant documents. I think librarians will be those who practice and teach the art of satisfying each person’s learning needs better and faster. For example, the librarian should help organize access to podcasts of lectures and allow other students and faculty to add comments and notes to the podcasts, at least for themselves and friends and, when warranted, for any user. Such podcasts would not be static. “Tricks” for learning a section faster can be appended. Librarians should be able to help put together the most frequently asked question (FAQ) lists for their community so that good, fast answers to natural language questions can be automated.

Robert: Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 seem to echo in your comments, Richard. This reminds me of Roy Tennant’s quote in his article “Strategies for Keeping Current” in Library Journal (9/15/06)—he says that “We learn all the time without even thinking about it….We think that if someone doesn’t stand up in front of us and talk to us with either a chalkboard or PowerPoint slides, we cannot learn. We must regain our sense of wonder and our desire to learn.” I love your examples of making our interactions more dynamic and meaningful to our users, Richard. Michael Stephens also gives plenty of examples of social software and libraries using them to better connect with their users in his report mentioned earlier, and to librarians who are considering implementing Web 2.0 technologies and thinking in their libraries to better connect with everyone, especially Millennials, he simply states, “Come in, the water is fine.”

Marie: If libraries are to remain vibrant, responsive, and relevant, it seems to me to be like reading the writing on the wall (or writing on the screen) that significant change is needed in library web interfaces and services. Rapid technological change is difficult for many of us who are digital immigrants rather than the Millennial digital natives, yet our sense of wonder and curiosity is probably what led us into this profession to begin with and I for one am easily bored, so love trying new approaches and also love learning from the Millennials.

Marie and Robert: Do you see any possible consequences if libraries continue to do “business as usual” during the next few years? If so, what might they be?

Richard Sweeney: Our user behaviors, interest and needs are rapidly changing. If libraries do business as usual, they will become less and less relevant to these users. Already the young people think libraries are more about books and less about information than the older generations (De Rosa, Cathy et. al. Perceptions Of Libraries and Information Resources; A report to the OCLC membership. 2005).

Robert: Ouch! It seems that we need to not only better connect with Millennials, but we need to better market or advertise what we are doing for them now and get their involvement and input.

Marie: I couldn’t agree more with Richard and Robert.

Marie and Robert: What changes do you anticipate making in the next few years to accommodate the Millennials and to encourage them to use the NJIT library and electronic resources?

Richard Sweeney: One of the immediate problems we face in libraries is that we know less today about most of our users, i.e., users who search and use our online resources remotely. Millennials vote with their clicks. In our focus groups, it was obvious that the OPAC was not being used very much by our students, except to find out if we had a copy of a title available. We only know that, say 100 uses were made of the XYZ database. Was that 100 different users or one user who executed 100 searches? Were the end users successful in any of their searches? We need to begin to accumulate much more focused information about specific user satisfaction or the lack of it and then find ways to use technologies to improve user learning. We are already taking steps to move outside of the traditional catalog to obtain NJIT library resources. Our library will always be about serving people, by helping them learn better and faster. But in the future libraries will play a more active and engaged role integrating published knowledge with internal instruction, individual and peer-to-peer learning, and university research and community service.

Marie: Yes, it is true that current logging software and available reports leave much to be desired. We certainly need to find out more about this population and their information seeking and communication behaviors.

Marie and Robert: Finally, where can we find out more about your research with Millennials?

Richard Sweeney: You can take a look at my web page.

Robert: Thanks for the link to your web page, Richard. Anyone who is interested in more information on Millennials and what we can do as librarians or educators to better connect with them will love viewing your “Millennial PowerPoint” presentation with your graphs, charts, statistics, and many quotes, and your August 14, 2006 article “Millennial Behaviors and Demographics” is very informative and well-written—we especially found the listing and descriptions of Millennial behaviors that are impacting our society to be enlightening, especially in regard to how their behaviors impact their approach to learning and communicating. Thank you for including these, as well as the PowerPoints from your many recent ALA presentations.

Marie: I might add, Richard, that your article also has a great bibliography for those who want to learn more, and I’d also like to add my thanks for this interview!

Biosketch and Contact Information for Richard Sweeney
Richard Sweeney is the University Librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has been vice provost for libraries and information services at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, executive director of the Public Library of Columbus and Franklin County in Ohio, director of the Genesee County Library in Michigan, director of the Atlantic City Free Public Library in New Jersey, and Librarian at Central Junior High School in Atlantic City. He has served on the Board of Trustees of Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey; has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels; and has served as president of the Columbus, Ohio, Cable Commission. He has conducted more than 35 Millennial Generation panels in a dozen states. His most recent article is “Reinventing Library Buildings and Services for the Millennial Generation,” which was published in the fall 2005 issue of Library Administration & Management. Two of his six children are Millennials.

Contact Information: Richard T. Sweeney, University Librarian, Robert W. Van Houten Library, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102-1982 Voice: 973-596-3208 Fax: 973-643-5601.


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