Libraries can help users who want to connect – and those who want to disconnect

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By Jessie Mannisto, 2011 Google Policy Fellow, ALA OITP

Photo reprinted with permission by photographer David Ng Soon Thong

Originally posted August 9, 2011 on District Dispatch

One day, when I was working as a reference assistant at an academic library, something went wrong with our wireless router.  While most students were understandably frustrated, one looked pleased.  “I’ve already downloaded everything I have to read,” she said. “Now I might actually be able to read them without feeling like I have to check Gchat and Twitter.”

As a 2011 master’s graduate of the University of Michigan School of Information, I’ve embraced my alma mater’s mission of connecting people, information and technology in more valuable ways – while coming to believe that sometimes disconnecting is a valuable step toward fulfilling that mission.  I’ve therefore dedicated my Google Policy Fellowship at ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) to studying the impact of our networking technologies on our minds and trying to find ways to use this technology in ways that really do make us more productive, better educated, freer and happier, instead of stressed and scatterbrained.

In some circles, the suggestion that constant connection might be less than ideal gets you a scarlet “L” pinned to your shirt, marking you as the Luddite you must be.  But library users who come in seeking a quiet space to do research don’t want connected devices purged from the library; they just want a place to think without a constant stream of disruptions.  Those of us who want to improve our focus don’t want to banish Facebook forever; we just need help taming our impulses to check it every six minutes.

Libraries and librarians are uniquely placed to help with these problems, and if we can do so, we will gain loyal followers from my generation of digital natives.  Envision a program where a university library promotes an alternative to so-called study-drugs: Improve your focus and concentration without the health risks of Adderall!  I for one would go to that program.

But what would this program do?

First, it must establish that the problem is one of digital information literacy.  Education professionals, starting with instructional librarians, would distinguish between two distinct types of interactions with information: information gathering and information processing.  Our current Internet infrastructure encourages us to blend these two, and while that’s helpful in some settings, at other times it’s not.  Our trains of thought are derailed by irrelevant tangents that we can follow endlessly; we crave the “dopamine squirt” of new bits of information, and we often feel pressure to stop what we’re doing to respond to those bits, or to follow a less useful but more novel trail.  Skimming the surface of a vast sea of information can be useful and rewarding, stimulating our brains with creative links between topics; but diving deep into a subject and exploring it in depth is also a highly rewarding and useful activity, crucial to the work of analysts and other knowledge professionals.  We need not give up one type of information-gathering activity at the expense of the other, but our current information infrastructure greatly favors the former.  There’s less room for information processing if you are incessantly gathering.

Many of today’s information consumers haven’t stopped to reflect on these two distinct behaviors, let alone to explore the potential benefits of separating them, including increased focus and memory and decreased stress.  Librarians could talk about these benefits during class visits, library orientations, or during special programs.  To say hyperconnectivity and its downsides are simply facts of modern life is to succumb to the worst kind of technological determinism.

Many well-intentioned Internet users need help changing their information processing and gathering behaviors.  The library’s multifaceted image – a quiet study place, but one that offers vast quantities of information resources – positions it to help people regain a balance.  Traditional library programs like book discussion groups could talk about Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.  Speakers could include local mental health professionals, yoga and mindfulness experts, and the tech gurus who, recognizing their splintered focus, created programs like StayFocusd, a browser extension that attempts to limit access to distracting web sites.  Communities could discuss these issues in a public space, where individuals could publicly declare, for example, that their BlackBerrys are no longer welcome at the dinner table, so please don’t expect them to be available at mealtimes.

None of these are revolutionary solutions.  The revolution comes through increased awareness of both positive and negative impacts of our technological habits, and through the knowledge that people are seeking to control their information-processing lives without ditching these technologies.  Stress associated with hyperconnectedness is an inherently social problem, so its solution should be social as well.  With its expertise in addressing both the needs of individuals and of communities, libraries again emerge as an excellent venue to confront this problem.

Libraries could even market disconnected spaces alongside their connected ones.  A quiet, disconnected study room in a library is an ideal space for contemplation of deep ideas, since, after all, if you really need to go check your e-mail, it’s available just outside at the library’s Internet terminals.  With that knowledge, you could free yourself to think once more.

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