I think one of the largest challenges in libraries today is to offerWeb- based services that appeal to the next generation. In other words, how can a library staffed largely by baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation X'ers (1965-1980) create interfaces and services suitable for those in the millennial generation (1980-2000)?
Though I try to avoid generalizations, I think it's fair to say that millennials approach technology much differently than folks from previous generations. While I began using computers in my 20s (remember Hollerith cards and keypunch machines?), most millennials have been online since childhood.
In "Get Ready: The Millennials Are Coming!" a report that Forrester Research published last year, Claire Schooley provides some insight on this generation's approach to technology and work. She notes the millennials' innate aptitude for technology, ability to frenetically multitask with diverse types of digital media, and highly interactive style of working. My generation learned how to use technology. For millennials, it's practically a native skill.
It's important for us to understand how millennials deal with information if we are to succeed in delivering our services to them. According to Schooley, millennials are "accustomed to receiving information quickly and from multiple sources in real time and processing it immediately. They have little tolerance for delays; expect Web pages to load immediately. They expect graphical, highly intuitive user interfaces." Millennials prefer social networking, online, real-time communications.
All of these characteristics ring true as I observe my own college-age children and the students in the library where I work. They consider e-mail stodgy and avoid it. They'll use it to send messages to teachers and parents, but it's not how they communicate with each other. Instant messaging on the computer isn't as cool as it used to be. Text messaging on cell phones has taken over as the preferred method for quick communication. When this group does messaging on the computer, it's more likely to be Voice over IP with video than simple text messages. Millennials rarely work on projects or study alone. They gather in groups and work together.
I also concur with Schooley's observations that millennials respond more to graphics than text. They might struggle to read a book or essay but can spend hours consuming images, animation, and video.
Along these lines, let me pause to point out the huge explosion in online video in the last few months. comScore Networks, a company that measures the audiences of Web sites, recently released statistics showing that sites devoted to video have entered the mainstream. Prior to this year, bandwidth constraints and the lack of adequate media players on end-user computers hampered the widespread consumption of video content. The metrics for video sites are climbing rapidly. In July 2006, YouTube.com had 16 million visitors, MySpace Videos had 20 million visitors, and Yahoo! Video had 21.1 million visitors. All these sites saw increases in traffic of more than 20 percent above the previous month.
Are Libraries Meeting Millennial Expectations?
How well-suited is the current generation of library automation products and services to meet the needs of the millennial generation? I worry that too many of the library offerings on the Web may not be especially appealing. These are some of the characteristics that the millennials may not appreciate:
- Dense, cluttered Web pages
- Information resources that are presented in separate information silos. Go here for books, go there for articles, look here for digital content, jump over there to request something the library doesn't have.
- Limited user feedback. A simple mailto link just doesn't cut it for millennials who thrive on instant, online, many-to-many communications.
- Library catalogs based on the metaphor of card catalogs, which most millennials have never used
- Complex search environments with poorly ordered result lists. A list that's alphabetical or chronological is tidy but often requires persistence to work through.
Web 2.0 to the Rescue
Web 2.0 wasn't necessarily conceived to bridge the generational transitions. It is a natural progression in Web technologies. It's fortunate that the concepts and technologies embodied in Web 2.0 are well-aligned to the needs of the millennial generation. As we implement them, I believe that most users will appreciate the benefits. But for millennials, the need is more urgent since they have a lower tolerance for the limitations of the older approach.
While Web 2.0 has been widely discussed in the library media for the last year or so, the following are some of the ways it's been applied to our environment, often under the banner of Library 2.0:
- Library Web sites that facilitate collaboration and communication
- Library blogs
- Extensive use of RSS, such as newsfeeds, blog postings, notification for recently received items, and dissemination of search results
- Wikis (community-built information resources)
- Tagging, which allows users to identify resources for future reference to benefit the larger community
- Web services and other APIs (application programming interfaces) to provide a framework for intercommunication among different library applications and to allow users to access and repurpose data in their own ways
- Mashups, which are applications that combine and remix data from multiple resources to create new services. One can combine mapping services and GIS coordinates of library locations to produce a service that helps users find their nearest branch.
Going Beyond Web 2.0
Although Web 2.0 represents movement in the right direction, I don't believe that it's a comprehensive prescription for all that ails library Web sites.
In a recent column, I suggested that while Web 2.0 offers some important advancements, many libraries still lack the resources to provide rudimentary Web-based services. I also don't want the advancement of library technologies to be limited to those cast within the Web 2.0 framework. I see lots of opportunities for improvement that may not get adequate attention if we focus solely on the trendy Web 2.0 themes. Many features that are needed to appeal to the new generation of users don't fit neatly into the Library 2.0 package.
In light of the characteristics I've noted about the millennial generation, these areas require prompt attention:
More intuitive library interfaces. While better-designed interfaces benefit all users, they're a necessity if we want to draw in millennials who have experience with an incredible number of Web resources. This generation comes to the library with a wide range of expectations for these resources.
Better search engines. Users, who are accustomed to the large variety of online applications that work amazingly well, have placed high expectations on search effectiveness. They expect search engines to be fast and sophisticated and are used to instantaneously searching very large bodies of content. If Google can search billions of Web pages and deliver instant results, why does the library catalog seem so sluggish? While millennials may appreciate the simplicity of using a metasearch tool to search multiple databases at once, the delays may be intolerable.
Relevancy ranking. Again, based on expectations set elsewhere, the best and most related items should be at the top of the list. This can be very difficult to accomplish, especially in a library environment where many of the factors, such as popularity of use, may not be applicable or appropriate.
Search models. The Web acclimates us to a search method that involves drilling down through a large set of results rather than forming a precise query at the beginning of the process. Instead of a complex Boolean search request, users start off by searching a broad concept that can be incrementally narrowed until the desired results appear. Faceted navigation and searching within result sets are fundamental and expected interface features.
More digital content. The trend toward increasing the amount of digital content in library collections is very much consistent with the millennials' preferences. Content that isn't readily available is at a disadvantage.
More multimedia. Video content has hit the mainstream Web. Library text won't satisfy millennials who thrive on data in diverse media and formats.
Coherency. Millennials expect seamless navigation through an integrated Web site. While libraries tend to depend on many different back-end components and servers to deliver a complex set of services, they shouldn't intrude unnecessarily into the user interface. Aim for a uniform look and feel and persistent sign-on across services even when they're delivered by separate applications.
While I've focused mostly on the needs of the millennials, I don't want to overdo the generational issue. Although millennials approach things differently, I don't necessarily believe that we must create interfaces just for them. The progress required in the library Web presence to satisfy the millennials will be well-appreciated by all.
We do need to understand that millennials have less of a tolerance for slow, nonintuitive, and unattractive Web sites and will quickly turn to other sources if the library's doesn't meet their expectations. It's also important not to consider these changes as a dumbing down of library interfaces. It takes a very sophisticated set of components and a well-thought-out design to achieve these results. The improvements required to satisfy these users aren't inconsistent with the expectations of other groups of users.
I think that meeting the needs of the millennial generation may pose the greatest challenge to how librarians deliver information on the Web. If we can satisfy this group, then we have made advancements that benefit all our users.