The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

After signing up to a petition to protect the funding of the British Library a while ago, I get mail-outs from them every now and then. As spam goes it could be a lot worse, I read my mail plain-text anyway and the articles they link to are often at least passing diverting. Rarely however are they as well-loaded as this one, which I got the PDF of and read avidly. They’ve been looking at browsing habits on a truly broad scale, and though they admit left right and centre that there are all kinds of problems with the sample, which I find sort of encouraging, the tentative findings are quite interesting. What it is is a study by a group at University College London called The Centre for Information Behaviour and Evaluation of Research who have basically been profiling virtual research behaviour by age, so as to see if there really is a “Google generation” of web-users or not and what that means for future researchers. Their conclusions, broadly, are that (i) there isn’t, because after a certain stage of growth everyone uses the web in broadly the same way if they use it at all, no matter whether they’re 20 or 70; (ii) this does seem to mean that real research skills are dropping off, because if people can’t find an answer in a few minutes’ web-searching they stop, and (iii) this means that almost all libraries, academic or public, are being desperately outdated in the way they present their contents and make their resources available and that those who wish to retain much of a user base need to start doing really special things to remedy this lack of appeal pretty much now. And they have some suggestions, but it’s all fairly fascinating for anyone who’s been on both sides of the process of digitising knowledge and putting it online, and I do urge you to have a look at the full report.

3 responses to “The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

  1. Man, that’s sobering.

    Thanks so much for this. I’m on a Task Force at my university’s library, looking at how to improve it. I’ll share this with the rest of the group.

  2. I think libraries are missing a trick if they don’t exploit the space they create around the books, not only the books themselves. (Reminding me a little of the Whiteread house, and the Space Syntax work.

    Books are becoming, perhaps, less important for some research purposes, and there are subjects where you can do serious research with just a laptop and the internet, though largely not by merely typing things into google.

    But as books perhaps devalue, the space which a research library provides: the volume and acoustics; the depersonalised, unowned environment; the social presumptions in any interpersonal interaction; the ritual of entry and exit from a place of work; and so on, become increasingly important as all of these things disappear from the prosaic world.

    (Research) Libraries risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater if, by seeking to accommodate the googlies, they destroy these environments.

  3. I agree that libraries are a special space, although that too is being used in different ways. Birkbeck College Library has two soundproofed rooms set aside for conversation and collaborative work; Goldsmith’s I’m told has however gone the other way and set aside several spaces for *quiet*. One visitor I took to Cambridge UL said she’d never been in a library space as quiet as the Reading Room there, which is one of the noisier bits I think!

    All the same, we can’t really expect people to come to a library to use the internet if they can do so at home; and I myself don’t often work in a library if I can avoid it simply because it’ll be easier to work productively where my notes and files are… Though it would be easier if several shelves of the IHR’s library were in my room too naturally! So I think libraries should keep that space for those who will work there, and who will use the books; but on a limited budget, the existence of that space and those resources when more and more of the library’s customers aren’t actually coming in and are using the electronic resources, must become harder and harder to justify. This is one of the things that the CIBER paper is addressing; given usage patterns, aren’t libraries heading towards just being a a web gateway to databases? And why should they be otherwise if that’s reaching more people than the print media are and they can’t have the money for both?

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