About a dozen years ago I was a part of a presentation in which my co-presenter told audience members about her discussions with the college students with whom she worked in which she would say, “The internet IS NOT a toaster.” By that she meant that at that time using the Internet was not as simple and easy as putting a piece of toast into a toaster, pushing the button, and then having a perfect piece of toast pop out in just a few minutes.

After 12 years I’d say that for most of the teens with whom we work, the internet IS a toaster. Why? Because it’s a part of day-to-day life and has been for the entire lifespan of anyone who is currently a teen, or younger. The internet to a teen is no different than a toaster, or a refrigerator, or any other appliance that gets used every day. And, it’s not just the internet, technology, web 2.0, ereaders, Twitter, Facebook, etc. is a toaster for the teens with whom librarians work.

The reason this is important is because for many adults we still look at technology as something special and it’s that specialness that can cause a divide between the teens that use, or might use the library, and the librarians that serve them. I see this play out in a few different ways. I think the most telling of these is that librarians often want and expect teens to get excited by technology, from ereaders to Twitter, and when teens don’t demonstrate thrill and excitement over some piece of technology, or a technology tool, librarians take that to mean that the tech isn’t of interest to teens. That can be a wrong assumption. It’s probable that what the librarian is looking for teens to be excited about is no more exciting than a toaster.

Think about this within a book context. If you say to a teen, we have books in the library is she going to get excited? Probably not. Even if you say, we have dystopian novels in the library, that’s probably not going to lead to jumping up and down and cheering from a teen. (Well not much may lead to that.) What does get teens excited about the books you have in the library? Often it’s the personal connection you make with a teen between a book, a genre, or an author. For example, you might know that a teen loves books about tattoos. When you get a new tattoo book in the library you would show the teen the book and say something like, “Look, I know you love this kind of stuff, this is amazing isn’t it? Look at these pictures? Do you want to be the first to take it out?” Now that might get a teen excited about the book.

Within a technology context a librarian wouldn’t say, “You can use social media in the library.” That’s not going to get a teen very energized. And, you probably won’t say, “You can use Xtranormal to create videos in the library.” That won’t get teens excited either. That’s really no big deal. But, what if you say, “I know that you love to create movies and the library is about to publicize an Xtranormal video contest. I think you should participate.” That might lead to a much more energized and interested response.

The other thing to keep in mind about this is that librarians are looking to teens to discover what to be bring to the library in technology realm. But, when talking with teens about the possibilities for technology in the library, librarians might not show their own interest or excitement about what’s possible. For example, when talking with teens about ereaders, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Xtranormal do librarians show as much interest as they might when talking about the latest novel in a series, or the newest book from a favorite author? Teens pick up on these things, we know that, so it’s important to keep it in mind.

Technology IS a toaster. For teens, it’s no more special than a book. Why not start thinking about it that way in the library?

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

7 Thoughts on “The Internet IS a Toaster

  1. In a school setting, I see a crucial distinction: when’s the last time you saw a teen try to make toast for half an hour, then give up and eat a Snickers? Teens in many libraries have to put up with obsolete hardware and frustrating filters, and if the online tools we recommend don’t behave the way they expect they’ll often turn to more familiar sources, even if the end product is sub-par.

    You could walk into just about anyone’s kitchen and know how to use their toaster without asking. Can you say the same for your library’s technology or digital content? I think we’re doing teens a disservice if we don’t recognize that many of our online tools–no matter how intellectually relevant they are or how familiar they might be to adults–simply aren’t intuitive to teens.

  2. So, the Internet/tech is a toaster – it’s ubiquitous – but in some places it’s a really old toaster that doesn’t work so well? I don’t doubt that and know that it’s true. Then I wonder, what is the impact for/on teens when tech is nothing special to them but in some places it doesn’t work so well?

  3. David on March 17, 2011 at 9:48 am said:

    The Internet is also a VCR.
    Not to long ago, you had to be at least a little familiar with programming to use a computer. That was a barrier, but it also meant that people who used the tool understood it. A VCR, however, was easy. You put a tape in, press play. Older people may have had a harder time learning the interface, and were distracted by the blinking 12:00, but really, the ease with which younger people mastered the VCR isn’t all that impressive.
    Because many teens have a much easier time than older people mastering the interface, it is easy to miss that many of them really don’t understand the technology. Not really a problem with a VCR, perhaps, but I think it is a big problem when the technology is as pervasive as it the networked world has become.
    Some are power users, sure, but I think we are misguided when we assume that the teens are the technology experts.

  4. Linda W. Braun on March 17, 2011 at 9:54 am said:

    I definitely know that teens aren’t tech experts, but maybe by not looking at technology as something special we’ll be able to connect with teens more successfully. If we are “oh wow this is special.” And teens are “ehhh, this is nothing special” there’s a divide. Perhaps if we are both “this isn’t so special but we still need to figure out how to use it successfully,” we’ll have more success at working with teens in learning about tech..

  5. Yes! I think you are dead-on about lack of visible enthusiasm for a technology not being the same as lack of interest in using the technology! And the books analogy is perfect. Most people don’t get excited about books in the library. That is old news. But they are still checking out stacks of them every week, and they might get really excited about this new author that they discovered browsing the shelves…

  6. Sarah Debraski on March 18, 2011 at 9:09 am said:

    Great post, Linda! I love your examples because they show that no matter the technology we use, it’s the personal connections that still really matter. The technology is just an aside. And, as an aside, I am not a teenager but my laptop is like a toaster to me. And I find myself irritated with people my own age who don’t have computers be a part of their daily life.

  7. Jenny Arch on March 11, 2012 at 8:56 pm said:

    Hi Linda! I like your point of view here – a lot of times, in public libraries especially, the technology may not be cutting egde or exciting, but it’s the personal connection that can spark a stronger interest.

    Also, though teens – “millennials” and younger – definitely have an affinity/aptitude/familiarity with technology, that isn’t the same as information literacy. Teachers and librarians still have plenty to teach about search strategies and what information is and isn’t reliable.

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