Monday, September 23, 2013

The "Digital Natives" Myth and Library Science Education

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a "digital native."


Now that we all agree this group of people doesn't exist, let's define the term. Here I turned to ur-digital native text, Wikipedia.
Oh, the irony of the placement of that "citation needed."

Now let's stop using that term. It's ageist, classist, and it's flat out untrue, both as an abstract concept and as a term that purports to describe some aspect of reality.

One's proximity to technology does not make one a native. Nobody is born with the above skills, nor is anyone placed in a crib or bassinet next to a tablet, smartphone, or a copy of Python for Dummies.
I got this image from Amazon, but buy the book
from an independent bookseller, please. 
The term is sometimes used as a cudgel against librarians born before said "natives." It is a tool of marginalization and silencing, as if the year of one's birth confers some sort of technological expertise that others should defer or cater to.

Jenny Emanuel, Digital Services & Reference Librarian at the University of Illinois, Urbana, recently published an article that should put the use of this term to rest. She surveyed students at fifty American Library Association-accredited Masters of Library and Information Science programs, as well as newly minted librarians, by degree. Three hundred and fifteen survey responses and twenty in-depth interviews later (20) it is clear that at least among this sample, there is no such thing as a digital native.

Instead, there are a group of people that are, by dint of birth year, on average, slightly more comfortable using recent technological advances to communicate than people older than them, but the younger group of librarians and librarians-to-be is not comfortable using this technology to create, as evidenced by figure 2 on page 24, in which participants express a desire to learn to program.

That is to say, Millennials are using technology, and no doubt their communications create knowledge, but they are consumers of the technology, not creators of it.

Some of the interviewees raise issues of age, class, and geography.
not all considered themselves a digital native, very tech savvy, or able to pinpoint exactly what their tech skills are. Most, however, did believe that there were differences in technology use and attitudes between librarians who were younger versus older librarians. (26)
when pressed, not all considered themselves digital natives.... Rachel grew up in a poorer home that always got technology second-hand, and she always thought they were behind others. Although her family first had an Apple Computer in the 1980s, she did not recall using it, and just thought of it as a sort of “new appliance” in her house. Her family did not emphasize technology use and saw it as something not worth investing in until they had to, which gave her a different perspective of using technology only as necessary and as “one of those things that sometimes I just don’t want to deal with.” Samantha grew up in a rural area that only had dial-up Internet, which embarrassed her and did not work as well as she thought it should, so she did not use it, leading to a belief that she did not grow up on the Internet in the same way as her peers. Because of this, she did not consider herself a digital native. (27)
A few interview participants mentioned the tech skills of people even younger than they are, or current college students they work with. Betty did not see younger coworkers understanding what is needed to develop or understand the back end of technology and believed younger workers do not use technology to communicate as effectively as they could. Edward, who works at a for-profit career college that has many poorer and nontraditional students, stated, it is “not just the 50 year olds, but the 18 year olds who don’t know how to attach documents to an email.” (29)
Thus, a group of people, librarians and librarians-to-be, that one would think would express comfort with technology instead present a much more nuanced picture. The myth of the digital native has implications for library and information science programs as well.

Page 23
Perhaps there is room for Code Year, or Coders for Libraries to fill what is a clearly expressed knowledge vacuum in MLIS programs.

It's an interesting article and I encourage librarians of all stripes to read it. I also encourage librarians of all stripes to stop using the term "digital native," or its friend "born digital."

Emanuel, J. (2013) Digital native librarians, technology skills, and their relationship with technology. Technology and Libraries, 32(3)


  1. Some of my students and graduates experience the digital-native myth in a somewhat different way: they are expected to have decidedly more tech savvy than their less-new-to-the-profession fellows... occasionally to thoroughly ridiculous extremes. (You can design websites, administer servers, fix machines, run the ILS, and do tech support, right? BECAUSE YOU'RE A TECH-SAVVY NEW GRAD, you digital native you!)

    From personal experience, let me add: there is also a difference between marginalization/silencing older folks via tech and trying desperately to cope with foot-dragging and bikeshedding from one's less-tech-savvy, unwilling-to-learn, sometimes openly tech-hostile colleagues. Two sides to every story.

  2. So very ready to do away with the myth of the "digital native"! I used to use digital native vs digital immigrant images in workshops, but the was years ago when those who we labeled as 'digital natives' weren't yet in the work force. The images helped people relax a bit and realize that it was ok that they didn't know everything about tech, but they could learn. Now that those "kids" are my colleagues, I never use that phrase. And I try really hard not to layer any age-based stereotypes about tech skills onto participants in my workshops.

    But I do wonder if younger folks have are more comfortable with jumping in and playing with tech than older folks? Or is that an old distinction that's disappearing as well?

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