5 Days, 5 Facts: Day 3 - we ARE the Google Generation...

Day 3 of 5 Days, 5 Facts, eh? Starting to question the wisdom of this, taking lots longer than I naively expected, and maybe I’m just writing a load of rubbish anyway, but I will press on regardless…  5 Days, 2 Facts On The First Two Days doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Fact 3: We behave just like the Google Generation do

We're all equally reluctant to read the manual

The coming of the Google Generation is a bit like climate change, in that even though we’re all fully aware we have to act now to adapt, we still think of it as something just around the corner rather than immediately in front of us. The UCL / BL report I keep referring to defines the Google Generation as those born after 1993, [1]  which means the first of them are about 16 now and soon to enter the higher education system. If you dip your toe into the waters of generation designation and you find they are deep and murky – defining ‘a generation’ is a fairly abstract activity of course, so there’s plenty of room for grey areas. According to that unimpeachable scholarly resource Wikipedia, [2]Generation X  is the one after the baby boom ended, with a date range from 1961 to 1981. Generation Y  (also known as the Millennial generation, the Net Generation, or the particularly arch Generation Next) can spread from the mid-70s to the late-90s, apparently, meaning thewikiman is of both X and Y generations. And if you type ‘Google Generation’ into Wikipedia, you get taken to the page for Generation Z  - born between the mid-90s and now. So, estimates vary. Presumably the generation after this one won’t thank Generation X for being so short sighted as to start the nomenclature only 3 letters from the end of the alphabet. [3]

The point of all this is to show that there’s a huge overlap in the different classification of groups of people, and that while the Google Generation have many names and may cover many dates, the point of that categorisation is that they are all digital natives, born into the technology, and they’re all about to be using our libraries. What I'm trying to say in this piece is that the digital immigrants, such as myself, actually behave just the same as the digital native much of the time, so we effectively need to cater for Generation Z right now, rather than in a couple of year’s time. It isn’t the generation that is defining the technology – it is the technology which is defining all of us, regardless of generation.

The first major study undertaken in this area (as far as I’m aware) was by the OCLC, entitled College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources [4] around four years ago. They asked the same questions to what we’ll settle on calling the Google Generation as they did to those born earlier, and compared the results. So for example, 36% of the overall cohort of respondents decreed themselves ‘Extremely familiar’ with ‘Search engines’ as sources to find (scholarly) information, compared with 45% of the Google Gen respondents; 26% overall with the ‘Physical Library’ as opposed to 34% of the Google Gens etc. [5] So while the Google Generation are predictably more au fait with the internet as a tool for research, they were more au fait with the actual library too, suggesting that rather than being this separate online breed we sometimes think of them as, they are in fact just using a broader a range of sources for information; they are more proactive in locating them.  Significantly, while only around 30% of the total respondents had used a library website as an electronic information source, more than twice as many (62%) of the Google Generation had done so [6] - suggesting again that this generation’s love of Google  does not automatically entail a phobia of everything else. They are, in that respect, not so different from you or I.

The UCL report looks at the myths and realities of the Google Generation, [7] concluding that many of the claims made on behalf of that generation by the popular media ‘fail to stack up fully against the evidence’. For example, it is true that they are more competent with technology, but the older generation are catching up (and this process is happening so quickly it is probably doubly true now, almost two years after this report was written) and the younger generation use much simpler applications than many imagine. (This is backed up by the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, which found that “…nearly all the students in our sample had developed an information-seeking strategy reliant on a small set of common information resources – close at hand, tried and true.” [8] ) However, there was no evidence to support the notion that young people have less tolerance for delay than the rest of us – we are all equally impatient to have our information needs fulfilled. Similarly the need to be constantly connected to the web is no longer considered ‘a specific Google generation trait.’ [9] And pertinently for us in the Information Profession, the report found that the power-browsing behaviour discussed on Day 2 was common to everyone – professors and lecturers were searching horizontally every bit as much as the students were. I mentioned yesterday an article in the Times which discussed this report – Catherine O’Brien admits: “Power browsing, I have to concede, has become the norm for me. Google has been my godsend as a writer. Research that once required hours of trawling through reports and cuttings, and days of fielding calls to source experts, can be done in a few clicks of a mouse.” It is the norm for me too – all of the research for this string of posts originated on Google, not just because it’s quick and convenient but because the information is a current as possible – various of the reports I’ve cited are published, but at least one has an updated version I could only have discovered online. As I also mentioned yesterday, the Discoverability report[10] established that users now expect discovery and delivery of resources to coincide – this not just a trait of the youth of today, but of all of us now.

So to return to the point – the Google Generation is not just around the corner; it is here now, and it is consuming us too. We are becoming defined by the same traits as it, and now we need to continue to do everything we can to provide for it, right away.


[1] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.7. Available via www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf  
[2] I’m aware of the irony that I’m doing research about the Google Generation using just the kind flawed resources they do…
[3] And no one will thank anyone for the fact that apparently ‘Generation Next’ refers to both Y and Z generations, making a mockery of the whole ridiculous thing
[4] OCLC (2005) College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources. Available via http://www.oclc.org/reports/perceptionscollege.htm You will be asked to register but having done so you are instantly able to view the report.
[5] 5% of respondents overall pronounced themselves to have ‘Never Heard of’ the physical library, so perhaps all the results of the study can be called into question on the grounds that some of the people were clearly idiots. College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, 1-5.
[6] As above, 1-6.
[7] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.18.   
[8] Headm A., Eisenberg, M (2009) How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age. Available in PDF format via http://projectinfolit.org/pdfs/PIL_Fall2009_Year1Report_12_2009.pdf - originally brought to my attention by a blog post from Free Range Librarian
[9] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.19
[10] University of Minnesota Libraries (2009) Discoverability Phase 1 Final Report. Available via http://purl.umn.edu/48258