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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 130-113-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Libraries for Children and Young Adults
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 113.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Youthful Media Cultures: Challenges and Chances for Librarians

Kirsten Drotner
Centre for Child and Youth Media Studies
Dept. of Film and Media Studies
University of Copenhagen
Copenhagen S.
E-mail: drotner@coco.ihi.ku.dk


The main argument of the paper is as follows: there exists an opposition between cultural discourse, prioritising print media, and cultural practices engendered by a multi-faceted media culture of which print is only one dimension. This opposition materialises very much as a generational opposition in cultural institutions of leisure of which the public libraries are absolutely central. Based on new quantitative and qualitative data on juvenile media uses in Denmark, the paper first describes the mulimedia culture in two dimensions: innovation and integration. Together, these dimensions serve to relocate libraries in the everyday lives of the rising generations both materially and symbolically. Secondly, the paper focuses on ways in which these relocations call for renewed action by librarians and reflexivity on their professionalism.


In Nordic mythology, the god Odin holds the power to chisel runes and control their uses. Through the runes he may quench fire, calm the sea and turn the wind as he pleases. The myths invest written culture with magic forces. This connection between print and power is still fundamental to the cultural discourses of modern, western societies: it permeates education, and it is a cornerstone of our libraries. But today this discourse is increasingly at odds with cultural practices and priorities.
My main argument is this: there exists an opposition between cultural discourse and cultural practices engendered by a multi-faceted media culture of which print is only one dimension; and this opposition is very much a generational opposition that is played out in cultural institutions of leisure of which the public libraries are absolutely central.

In order to substantiate my argument, I shall first describe some important trends in youthful media cultures focusing on the relations between print, visual and digital media and taking Denmark as my empirical focus. Secondly, I shall outline some dilemmas facing the cultural discourse of public libraries as a result of these new generational media practices in order to finally suggest some possible routes of cultural action. The empirical analysis draws on results culled from a range of projects at the Centre for Child and Youth Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

Empirical Trends: Innovation

Through this century, the rising generations have been among the first to explore and experiment with new media technologies. Today, processes of media innovation are primarily related to computers and to new forms of media reception, respectively.

Children and young people of today are the first generation to grow up with computers - the most important and far-reaching of the new media - and the first to integrate them into their everyday cultures. In general, older children and adolescents are the social groups whose time use of media has increased most dramatically since the introduction of computers. Moreover, the computer has hastened a decisive shift of emphasis in the direction of visual and digital over print media. The first national surveys of Danish children's and adolescents' media uses1) demonstrate that young Danes are at the internatioal forefront in youthful ownership of computer media:


Despite the differences resulting from the time of data collection, it is obvious, that families with children are at the cutting edge in acquiring new media technologies which apart from the computer comprise VCRs, camcorders, fax, mobile phones and answering machines.

There are still marked gender differences in the use of computers. Young men spend an average of 1:19 hours a day with computers - more than twice as long as young women (Fridberg et al. 1997: 42, 73). Conversely, young women spend twice as long reading for pleasure as do their male counterparts. In general, young women are markedly more interested in print media than are young men (apart from newspaper reading), a result that accords well with studies in other countries and for different ages (e.g. Roe & Muijs 1995: 43).

The gender differences are even more pronounced with children. Boys aged 9-16 spend an average of 1:22 hours per day using the computer - three times longer than girls who make do with 27 minutes on an average day. However, book reading for pleasure show no marked gender differences with children: boys aged 9-16 spend an average of 19 minutes per day only slightly less than their female friends who use 23 minutes (Drotner 1998).

But while different media may divide the genders and while we see a shifting emphasis between print and digital media, there is no indication that the visual and digital media are displacing older media. The displacement theory is among the most recurring and resilient in research on children and television although never proven according to Susan Neuman's recent overview (Neuman 1991). Certainly, our findings corroborate a positive correlation between television and leisure reading in the adolescent group. Thus, the most avid tv-consumers amongst those aged 15-18 are also the most avid readers: 30 per cent of those who spend more than four hours per day watching tv read for pleasure for an hour or more (Fridberg et al. 1997: 95). These results differ from those found, for example, in a longitudinal media study of Swedish children and adolescents where a negative correlation was found between book reading and other forms of media use (Johnsson-Smaragdi 1994: 122). Moreover, the minority of Danish adolescents outside education or paid employment are the most diligent readers of all, in that this group has the highest percentage of respondents spending more than four hours per day reading, namely six per cent, against, for instance, one per cent of the adolescents attending gymnasium (Fridberg et al. 1997: 139).

For young men, those who spend most time on computers also read the most (Fridberg et al. 1997: 96-98), a result which indicates that this group has its basis with middle-class families that have the strongest consuming power and harbour a tradition for educative betterment with which both books and computers are associated. So, while the computer, as noted above, has accelerated the prominence of visual over print media, we do not see a general displacement of old media for new.2)

The common-sense definition of the computer as yet another medium in the range available, points to another innovative trend in today's youthful media culture, a trend linked to new forms of reception. For despite the increasing importance of visual media it is true to say that in general older children and notably adolescents are media innovators in the sense that they are the group in Danish society that makes the fullest use of the most media. This may be gauged from two sources: their ownership of technological hardware and their time using it. Young Danes, and notably boys, easily top the list when it comes to media equipment in the home, and it is a fair guess that the industrial investments made in media hardware over the last 15 years are rivalled by similar investments made by families with children at home. Young Danes also distribute their media use across a range of their numerous media gadgets:3)


Two significant tendencies stand out from figure 3: boys consistently spend more time than girls on the media even if the gender gap narrows in adolescence. And the quite substantial total time use indicate that the young use various media together thus spurring what in many European countries is labeled as an "American" reception pattern. Hence, the rising generation may be termed a multi-media generation in three senses: they use the widest range of media, they use them together and notably older boys and young men actively explore interactive computing (cd-rom and internet). Conversely, it is not feasible to label today's youngsters 'the computer generation' or 'N-gen' (Tapscott 1998: 3), just as their parents were defined as a television and possibly a rock music generation in the sense that these media were new during their formative years and still colour their media preferences, while the generation of grandparents belong to a film and radio generation.4)

Empirical Trends: Integration

The enormous rise over the last 15 years in the output and availability of media for leisure-time use have made mediated forms of communication an almost imperceptible part of everyday life. Most media are integrated as routine aspects also in the lives of children and young people which is indicated by the fact that these groups will often apply various media at the same time and use them as a backdrop to other activities. Hence, the increasing integration of the media turn them into what may be called background media. But not least for the rising generation the very same media may quickly turn into centre-stage media: young children look forward to the children's hour on tv or the cartoons on Saturday mornings, while older children and adolescents will regularly turn certain films or tv-series into events, even rituals: thus the teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 made groups of young Danes congregate every week, staging pyjama parties and eating particular forms of food (Povlsen 1996).

This dual function of the media indicates two different forms of reception: many older children and young people use the media extensively, they are able to scan a wide range of mediated expressions and select those that 'feel right' for intensive enjoyment. This more complex orientation into and selection of various media and genres, the combination of extensive and intensive media use, nuances the widespread labeling in public discourse of contemporary youngsters as a zapper generation without ability of concentration or immersion into a single preoccupation.
And as the Swedish media and youth researcher Erling Bjurström has recently demonstrated in a major empirical study, the very combination of different media forms nurture processes of taste distinction across the media landscape, processes that were previously left to different genres of music (Bjurström 1997).

But the media today are not only embedded into the social fabric. They increasingly act also as catalysts in the formation of social networks in childhood and adolescence: youngsters may meet with particular friends only for special video nights and not for other occations (Jerslev, work in progress). 16-year-olds phone up their fathers' colleagues to ask for new versions of computer programmes and vice versa: 45-year-old men seek advice with boys twenty years their junior about the latest fad in Red Alert or MUDs (Langemark, work in progress). As may be seen, this social networking tends to reverse what may be called the 'horizontal patterns of social and cultural socialisation' that have been prominent in industrialised countries over the last generations: peers have taken priority over kin in everyday interaction so that today most of the young know relatively few people outside their own cohorts. Now, the multi-media generation approaches a more 'vertical pattern of socialisation' prevalent with most children and young people until the late-19th century when older siblings, cousins or adults of authority operated as foci of everyday interaction. It seems evident that the rapidly increasing importance played by chat groups on the Internet will hasten such modes of vertical communication - even if they may not immediately be known and acknowledged as such by the participants.

The Gendering of Media and Cultural Space

The Danish surveys of media use in childhood and adolescence generally show very few regional differences while the most marked differences are differences of gender, and here computer use and leisure reading top the list: as mentioned young women spend twice as long time on leisure reading as do young men and vice versa on computing. It seems obvious that for the young print culture has no particular magic powers anymore. It has become institutionalised as part of statutory schooling and holds little personal enchantment for boys once the ability to read has been acquired. Our data paint a picture in which girls grow up to become the caretakers of traditional culture as documented in print media such as novels, poetry and magazines, while their male peers nurture a virtual future in cyberspace if they are not busy training their strategic skills in complex computer games of action and exploration.

Will the future development of computer technology strengthen already marked gender boundaries? Or will these boundaries be crossed by multi-media that speak less to technological exploration? And how may cultural and educational policies - including the policies governing public libraries - serve to help redress these gendered imbalances? Several studies have noted that girls and women apply the computer as a means to an end while boys and men will often treat computing as a goal in itself (Nissen 1993, Turkle 1984). Perhaps, girls' exploratory interest will be advanced by future generations of computers with more appealing graphics, user-friendly interfaces and software genres that appeal to girls and women. Conversly, the rapid advancement of micro-computers applied in everyday commodities from toothbrushes to keys and heating systems may sensitise boys' to more pragmatic views on computing.

Maybe of more immediate importance for cultural politics is the re-gendering of public and private spaces induced by VCR's and home computers. Notably in the middle classes, these media technologies have acted as catalysts in a domestication of boys' and young men's leisure patterns that, at least in Denmark, is reinforced by boys dropping out earlier than girls of sports clubs and social centres after-school hours. For male adolescents, a well-established interest in visual media meet with their wish to evade adult supervision in an often intensive preoccupation with videos and computer games. For them, spatial domestication, cultural mediation and informalisation of leisure converge.

Conversely, girls and young women, who for generations have had the bedroom as their physical and mental point of departure, take more and more control over public spaces: they form increasing parts of associations and clubs, and since 1987 they comprise the majority of teenage cinema audiences in Denmark. Several studies indicate that many young women today treat public spaces as arenas of assessing autonomy and exerting their social participation (e.g. Kleven 1993, Nielsen and Rudberg 1994). For them, mediation and leisure go together with an intensification of public social life. It seems a vital question for cultural politics in general and for library priorities in particular to help influence these complex gender practices and discourses of power.

Discourses of Power and Library Practices

In advanced modernized societies such as Denmark the media occupy a central role as providers of intellectual and emotional experiences for the young and as tools for action. The rapidly increasing output of media has intensified the demands made on users' abilities to select and interpret mediated forms of communication. From the above it should be clear that the majority of young Danes live in a dual media culture: in school print culture still holds primary power together with oral forms of communication. Conversely juvenile leisure time is a multi-faceted media culture in which print media is only one dimension - and one of decreasing importance to older boys and young men. Moreover, it should be obvious that girls and young women orient themselves more towards public places while boys and young men domesticate themselves. Together, these trends put the public libraries in a particularly difficult position given that they want to continue serving both genders and all ages of the young.

Seen from a female user's point of view and painting a very general picture, the public libraries may be described as follows: they are useful because they offer an opportunity to get away from home to explore an activity approved and overseen by adults. Once inside, one encounters a number of 'good reads' chosen by a good number of adult women with insight into a wide range of literary genres. Seen from a male user's point of view the traditional picture of the public libraries is less illustrious: to get there is no big deal. And once inside, one is reminded of school with the many books and the dominance of adult women with little interest or insight into visual or digital media.

While most librarians will know that this picture is no way near the truth, it undoubtedly colours children's and young people's perceptions and actual use of libraries. Thus, in general girls and young women are more diligent users of public libraries than are their male friends. But the tables are reversed when it comes to using the internet. Here schools top the list closely followed by libraries: 30 percent of all Danes aged 6-16 have used the internet at school (32 per cent boys and 28 per cent girls), while 26 per cent have tried it at libraries (29 per cent boys and 23 per cent girls) - only third comes the home with 19 per cent (21 per cent boys against 17 per cent girls). This strongly indicates that the library is still very attractive and is actually used given that the library offers the right things. Not unnaturally, the use of libraries for internet use increases with age: 47 per cent of all adolescents aged 15-16 have used the internet at libraries against only two per cent of those aged 6-7. What is more interesting in terms of cultural politics is that children from the lowest social groups use the internet at libraries more than do their better-off friends: 28 per cent of the low social groups against 27 per cent in the highest social group (Drotner 1998). Perhaps the public libraries today serve similiar functions in terms democratising access to digital media as they did previously in terms of print media?

These figures point to some interesting gender differences in the use of public libraries, differences that it is essential for librarians to acknowledge and act upon. As I see it, the main asset of public libraries to boys and young men are not their location - most boys and young men already enjoy a wider and less circumscribed public range than do girls - and as already mentioned many middle-class boys have domesticated themselves in recent years. Rather the main asset of the libraries may be what is found inside - if boys like what is on offer such as access to computer use beyond the possiblities found at home or at school. Conversely with girls. To them, a main asset of public libraries is their definition as semi-public spaces located between what adults (and many girls too) see as the safe but unexciting domestic space and the unsafe, but exciting public space. Once inside the library, however, girls often get rather few surprises since the selection and staffing of the libraries comply with their female sphere of reference and preference.

Dialogic Professionalism

For many librarians the acquisition of computer media are viewed as essential for two reasons: computers may help retain a male interest in libraries, and computers may help legitimate continued public funding to libraries because digital culture is viewed with awe in most public discourses. I, too, find it essential that public libraries enter the 21st century as centres of digital as well as print media. But I also see some problems along the way to this ideal. Leaving aside the pressing problems of economy, copy-right and access in getting libraries equipped with powerful computers, I would like to point to two sets of issues relating to the youthful users: One is the way in which the needs of boys and girls are defined, the other is the way in which the professionalism of librarians is developed.

As for the definition of gendered needs, let me state these pointedly: girls need computers too, and boys need to read. And both need professional adult guidance along the way. In an understandable effort to upgrade libraries with digital media, librarians may risk enhancing existing gender differences by focusing all their energy on getting the lost male sheep into the library fold while downplaying the computer needs of girls and young women and perhaps even obliterating to nurture their literary competences.

Librarians are among the top professionals in cultural counseling. In order to retain this position into the 21st century it is vital that as a group librarians develop into multi-media professionals to match the present generation of young users - who, in turn, will be the future generations of adult users. In order to do so, it is necessary that librarians extend their existing competences in assessing and disseminating literary quality to also encompass visual and digital media. The solution in this development is not to substitute old media for new - as noted this easily widens existing gender gaps. Nor is the solution to simply mime youthful preferences in a populist attempt to be democratic. Rather the challenge is to retain and refine the librarian's professional judgements of quality in print as well as visual and digital media while enhancing the dialogue with both genders of young readers. Luckily, experiments with this has been carried out also in Denmark (Kjær-Olesen 1998). In an age of informational overflow and increasing demands made on discrimination in the selection and interpretation of mediated messages, the librarian's professional guidance and suggestions of choice is needed more than ever also in the field of visual and digital media. Librarians should strengthen their ability to listen to the young while daring to offer them challenging answers: more than ever before do children and young people need librarians as lighthouses of quality in the sea of information.

Personally, I think the public libraries are in a very favourable position to take on that role. Being positioned in local areas and being defined as part of youngsters' leisure sphere, the libraries occupy a prime position to develop into focal areas of interest and concern for young users. To many of children beyond the age of 11-12 school is considered a necessary but uninteresting basis of their daily lives. Conversely, leisure is often the focus of their daily lives: this is where they exert some autonomy and explore experiences of pertinence. Local libraries hold the key to become part of, indeed locus of, such experiences given their ability to make themselves visible and valuable as lighthouses of multi-culture both in terms of the media on offer and the range of users. Odin may extend his magical powers.

Financial support for the projects carried out at the Centre for Child and Youth Media Studies has been provided by the Danish Research Council for the Humanities, 1994-98, Danish TeleCom and the Danish Ministry of Culture.


  1. The findings are culled from two separate surveys. The first is a postal survey, comprising nearly 3.000 Danes aged 15-18 and with data collection made in April 1996; the second is a school-based, random-sample survey, comprising 1.400 children in four age bands (6-7, 9-10, 13-13, 15-16) with data collection made in February 1998. The latter is part of a major European research project on 'Children, Young People and the Changing Media Environment', directed by Sonia Livingstone and George Gaskell, London School of Economics and involving 12 countries (see Livingstone and Gaskell 1998).

  2. It should be noted that to link computer media with innovation as is done in this section is an adult, analytical connection. Few children and young people in Denmark think of the computer as a new medium (Stald 1997). They simply make use of the media available and associate innovation with unusual design or alternative uses rather than with a particular technology.

  3. To the time use shown in figure 3 should be added cinema-going, and music-listening distributed across a range of media (cd, radio, casettes) and traditionally the most important form of mediated culture for older children and adolescents (Roe 1983, Bjurström 1997).

  4. That the young are innovators of media culture is no recent trend. Historically, they have often been the first to explore and apply new media forms - notably commercial media - from popular magazines and film to today's computerized infotainment. What is new is that the competences gained and needs served by the media are vital for the future prospects of the young both economically, politically and emotionally.


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