The Adventures of a Zillennial Librarian

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended a few library webinars focused on Generation Z out of my own curiosity. For full transparency, I am a fairly young librarian; I took one gap year in between undergrad and library school. I’m in that liminal space of not quite a millennial, not quite Generation Z (I’ve seen it referred to as a “zillennial”). My birth year has been in both generational cutoffs, depending on who you ask. I often relate to the experiences and outlooks of both of the generations. I still get mistaken as a student, and I am indeed on TikTok like a lot of the typical college-age students I teach.  

I felt particularly “Gen Z” in a research consultation I just had with one of my Environmental Studies students. She needed some legislation from the 80s and 90s, and my state’s government website only has the most recent version. My library is a government repository; we have a specific government documents section of our stacks. Was that the first place I went? Nope. I scoured many a website, and eventually did find the 1989 version we were looking for in the appendix of a 1993 thesis from the University of Montana. Thank goodness for OCR, searchable full text, and institutional repositories!

We did, however, have it in our Maryland Register up in the stacks. This allowed us to find the date it was proposed and the date it was passed, for both versions of the law (and cite it properly!). This consultation got me thinking though about my instincts as a librarian, and how my world experiences and generation relate to the way I go about finding information, even after being trained in it for my master’s degree. Looking in the physical collection is only a thought after I exhaust all of my online searching techniques.  I, and I’d wager to guess many of my students, prefer the ease of finding and reading something online. Although I had dial-up internet for perhaps longer than most folks (I had a version of it until about 2013 or so? Living in the middle of nowhere problems), the internet in general was a big part of growing up and learning how to research. Yes, I love a physical book as much as the next person – but I’m talking more about answering my own questions or doing research. In a webinar on Gen Z by ASERL recently, it was said that “[Gen Z is] so used to finding what they need on their own.” I heavily relate to this. My first impulse is to pull out my phone and perform a Google search; I’m sure this is the case for many now, regardless of generation.  

Another difference I’ve noticed in being a young librarian is that I actively encourage the use of Google Scholar (and actually use it myself). I have attended library sessions before where it is discouraged or interacted with faculty that do not want students using it. I personally find that it is a good steppingstone from performing regular Google searches to getting right into an academic database that might look completely foreign to them. They can still use natural language in Google Scholar and get some relevant results, but they get better ones when we as information professionals introduce them to Booleans and other strategies. It’s also been really useful if a student has too broad of a topic – searching in Google Scholar allows them to see all sorts of discipline conversations about a topic, and how other academics have narrowed things down. They can choose which pathway they’d like to explore further, and once they have a good research question and keywords to try, we can get into the library databases, all the while talking about the differences between Google Scholar and Academic Search Ultimate. The “Cited by” function has also been invaluable in teaching students about the academic conversation as a concept too.  

Another aspect of Gen Z from the ASERL webinar I attended is that despite being constantly online, we generally prefer face-to-face communication. In my personal experience, this preference is heightened due to the pandemic when face-to-face wasn’t even an option. I will take any and all other forms of communication over a phone call, though; I’m not sure that’s necessarily attributable to being Gen Z, but more of an “Emily” thing. The reason is because I can’t read the other person’s body language or facial expressions. You might now ask, Emily, you also can’t do that when it comes to chat, text, and email? But the difference is there isn’t an expectation to immediately respond – I can have a moment to really take in the other person’s words and consider my response.  

As an example for face-to-face communication in my workplace and work life, I would much rather go down to my colleague’s office and ask them my question as opposed to emailing. This is partly due to our collective open-door policy, but for some reason, emailing feels overly formal to me in a lot of cases. If that isn’t an option, I might send the message over Slack. Of course, if it’s important to have some sort of paper trail, I’ll gladly email – it is very helpful to have a record of what a professor and I talked about when I’m preparing the lesson plan, for instance. If my email data scarf had been expanded to all kinds of work communication, I’d be interested in how the percentages broke down! Perhaps that should be my next data project.

These are just a few things I’ve been thinking about as a strange middle-ground zillennial librarian lately, especially since that research consultation. I am endlessly fascinated by generational research as a whole, so if you’ve got any thoughts, please comment them down below.  

I Can’t Think of Anything to Ask

My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.

During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask. 

Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that

  1. Questions are hard to ask; and
  2. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
  3. It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.

Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.

I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.

One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.