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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 15


Technology is as technology does

Last month's column talked about our odd expectations of privacy in our publicly-accessible online interactions, as well as about the need to become more consciously aware of what we share and the manner in which we share it. While reading some blog posts for that column, I ran across a few unfortunately ageist comments postulating that bosses' and others' issues with certain blog posts and tweets were, for instance, a "throwback reaction" by the "aged population".

Wow. I know, not really too surprising, but these sorts of comments always get to me. As I get older, I have a stronger reaction to phrases like "the aged population" – and an impulse to write things in response that might land me in hot water myself. Last I checked, there was no age limit on twitter, or Facebook, or FriendFeed. Last I checked, people under 40 could be professional, too ...

This is another place to think about what we say online and how it might be construed. Do you tend to talk about ancient Luddites and "the aged population"? Well, how old is your boss? Does the conference organizer of the show for which you just turned in a proposal follow you on twitter? Do you anticipate still using social networks in ten years? 15? Unless you're Peter Pan, you'll be part of that population sooner than you anticipate.

Putting it more nicely

I recently read a Slate article on information overload (http://www.slate.com/id/2244198/pagenum/all/) that quoted Douglas Adams – who put things a little more nicely:

"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

(See, when Douglas Adams says it, it's funny and thought-provoking!)

We do naturally tend to believe this sort of thing, especially when it comes to technology. Just because "everybody knows" something, though, doesn't make it true. Everyone once knew the earth was flat. More people in the US now believe in some version of creationism than in evolution. And we all know that "old people" don't use Facebook ...

No age limits

Jenny Levine recently posted about Library 2.0 not being "just for users", ending with the hope that we can talk more about how Web 2.0 technologies benefit us and make our jobs easier, rather than continue in pointless debates about "names, generations, and sides" (http://theshiftedlibrarian.com/archives/2010/02/24/library-2-0-not-just-for-users.html). Amen, Jenny!

Further, technological know-how and comfort levels aren't necessarily generational. For instance:

  • I run a résumé posting service at LISjobs.com, which mainly attracts recent graduates and younger professionals. Among the issues that come up repeatedly: young, new graduates thinking they can change a Word document to an HTML document simply by adding "htm" to the end, and young, new graduates putting up a Word 2007 (.docx) document and not understanding why people with older versions of Word can't open it. Superpoking people on Facebook doesn't necessarily translate into a basic understanding of technology.
  • My dad's on Facebook, as is my old high-school teacher. My 80-year-old mother-in-law is addicted to e-mail and Flickr. My 20-something brother has no use for twitter and Facebooks rarely, though he's addicted to his texting. People find what works for them and where their own networks have settled.
  • Stephen Abram (http://stephenslighthouse.com/).

Enough said.

Assumptions

You know what they say about assumptions, no? Everyone can and should settle into the technology that works for them, and that makes their jobs and their lives easier. The impulse to make social networks into a private millennial club merely impoverishes those networks and reduces the richness of the connections we're able to make – and isn't connection what these networks are all about? The more people who use these networks, the more robust our connections; the impulse to exclude those outside our own little age group is antithetical to what social networking is intended to accomplish.

So go ahead and friend your mom or your boss on Facebook. You can always use Facebook's tools to limit what updates they see! Add your colleagues to your network on LinkedIn, and see who's really using twitter – you might be surprised.

Clarity is as clarity does

Speaking of assumptions, I once wrote a book for "NextGen" librarians (http://books.infotoday.com/books/NextGenLib.shtml) – and sometimes, in my weaker moments, I wish I hadn't. People who read it, or who even see the title, tend to make two assumptions:

  1. that I'm in my 20s (not for a while now!), and
  2. that I'm ageist as heck (try not to be!).

People make these assumptions about me and my viewpoints based, not on what I actually wrote in the book, but based on what they think it must be about, given the rotten things people have said about other generations online. Not only do these assumptions and comments get in the way of building a vibrant network, they spill over to affect any productive discussion about generational issues in libraries.

When we make these kinds of off-the-cuff statements, we don't think about the larger implications. But when we repeatedly read these kinds of off-the-cuff statements, they feed into our assumptions about other generations and help perpetuate a vicious cycle.

Oh, stop being a censor, Rachel

Whenever someone calls for more thought about what we say online, the chorus immediately goes up: "Censorship!". First of all, as librarians we'd best know what the word actually means. Secondly – and let me make this very clear – you have the right to say anything you please online, about other generations or otherwise. But as I said last month, others also have their own right to form whatever assumptions they please about you based on what you tweet, what you blog, what you post on Facebook. And anyone has the right to think, and to say, that some of these comments are downright nasty, unproductive, and antithetical to what librarianship should be about; our freedom of speech includes our freedom to disagree.


Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).