Maggie Jackson, in her October 2009 book Distracted, and Nicholas Carr (author of the 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"), in his forthcoming (June 7) book The Shallows, ask essentially the same question — that is, is the way the net structures the presentation of information giving us shorter attention spans and promoting shallower thinking?
The Jurassic Librarian wouldn't be Jurassic if he didn't call attention to these thought-provoking books. There may be something, after all, to the long-form reading we librarians have extolled and promoted these many years, if not centuries.
The library digerati will wave off consideration of the idea that the net is rotting our brains in just the same way that a well-known library technologist and blogger waved off Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur a few years back as beneath consideration or actual reading. In their world, expressing reservations about the net is, it seems, akin to a felony. In my world, they are the tragically hip.
Jackson delves into the history of attention science, and Carr cites contemporary brain-function studies in making his case. Jackson tackles the question more broadly, focusing on our gadget-driven "culture of interruption," whereas Carr specifically criticizes the net. Here are the citations:
Distracted — The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson, with a foreword by Bill McKibben. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 327 pages.
The PW review, available on the book's Amazon page, is worth your time. And Professor Alan Lightman's blurb cuts right to the core of Jackson's thesis: "This is an important book . . . a harrowing documentation of our modern world's descent into fragmentation, self alienation, and emptiness brought on, to a large extent, by communication technologies that distract us, dislocate us, and destroy our inner lives."
Last year Wired Science ran an interview with Jackson, worth reading to test the waters before you take the plunge into the book. Here's an excerpt: "Right now, people hope they’ll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered environment. Quiet is a starting point."
Hmmm. Perhaps we librarians were on to something with the quiet thing, too.
The Shallows — What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, 276 pages.
From the Booklist review (available on the book's Amazon page): "Here [Carr] looks to neurological science to gauge the organic impact of computers, citing fascinating experiments that contrast the neural pathways built by reading books versus those forged by surfing the hypnotic Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image, or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts, and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention 'deep reading' engenders, Carr explains."
I don't want to bother you by telling you exactly what I need
A patron stands before your online catalog and types the following into the keyword search space: "Diagnosis of and treatments for knee pain and swelling on the left side of the kneecap," operating under the theory that the more keywords one provides, the more results one gets.
After his search produces nothing useful, his next stop is, of course, the reference desk, where his inquiry morphs into "Where are your books on health?"
It is a curious phenomenon: Faceless bots get told the need in exquisite detail, but human librarians receive only the most general of inquiries, often containing just the barest whiff of what the inquirer actually needs. What then follows is the "reference interview," in which the librarian attempts to extract the true need from the hesitant, if not resistant, patron.
Fans of the Fox show "House" know that Dr. Gregory House maintains that "all patients lie." Librarians have their own version of this: "Patrons may lie, and most would rather seize up and die in front of you than tell you what they need."
What the heck is going on here?
After a career at the reference desk, I can only postulate that it is psychologically difficult to appear before another human being as a supplicant. That human being may judge you, may be inwardly laughing at your question, or, worst of all, may think you are stupid for asking it. So best to keep the question as general and as innocuous as possible.
And quite a few also think that they, you know, don't want to bother us, having somehow missed the point that the sole purpose of a paid reference librarian is to be bothered.
So... much easier and less threatening to just type the inquiry into a faceless bot, which is incapable of forming any judgment about you.
Which is why reference is dead.
Google provides something we cannot: Anonymity. You can flail away in Google and no one will think you're perverted, laughable, or stupid. (Oh, I know that theoretically a transaction with Google can be traced back to an IP address, but for most all intents and purposes, Google offers anonymity. Besides, Google has promised us that they won't be evil.)
In addition to eliminating the need to appear before a fellow human being as a supplicant, Google offers the allure of do-it-yourself, the chance to thrash about in its universe on your own terms and on your own schedule. And most patrons think they are good searchers, just like most people think they are good drivers.
So reference is truly dead and will not be coming back.
One would think that Google, as it continually refines its search algorithms, could obtain something useful from the long, long experience of reference librarians. I have wondered if they have ever talked with a librarian, much less hired any to help in the effort. Or do they think that the methods and experience of librarians offer no insight into how people seek information?
I will ask them, and report back if I get an answer.
On a Saturday in December I shall make the closing announcement one last time, lock the front door, perhaps smile briefly at the stacks, the new book display, and the computing commons, turn out the lights, and walk away from my library forever.
You may think the retirement decision was easy, and that retirement has been highly anticipated. Your mileage may vary, but it has been neither easy nor highly anticipated for me. I loved libraries and I loved the work, and taking leave of it has been hard -- a lot harder than I thought it would be. I'll simply say that it has been both an emotional and difficult time.
If a job, not so hard to leave. But if a calling, much harder.
I had planned on working longer, but when my city offered incentives to longtime employees to retire -- which coincided with my qualifying for full retirement under our state and municipal employees' pension system -- it made sense to take advantage of the opportunity.
In my library system, three of us are taking the incentive and departing. Since the point of the incentives is to trim city payroll, we will not be replaced with newhires nor with other staff moving up the ladder. Our positions are being eliminated permanently.
Even if times were good, however, I'm not sure my managers would necessarily replace me and my colleagues with degreed librarians. In my system, I think the future belongs to library assistants, who will do much of the work at lower pay.
I'm not being critical of my managers. Given how the nature of library work is changing, shifting work from master's degree holders to, say, holders of two-year community college degrees, makes sense. Reference is not yet dead, but its circumstances are much reduced: We need fewer reference librarians, but many more people who can demonstrate how the print-release station works, who can sign people up for study rooms, who can troubleshoot computer problems or answer questions about using Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and IE, or who can proctor exams, and so on. These tasks do not require a master's degree nor even a bachelor's degree. There should probably still be one classic reference librarian in the building -- a know-it-all in the best possible sense of the expression -- but the need for a phalanx of reference librarians in the Age of Google is just not there.
If I were in my director's shoes, I'd carry out a reassessment of my patron's needs in light of the staff knowledge, skills, and abilities actually needed to meet them, and then hire and pay accordingly. There is no room for sentiment here, nor should there be.
I used to work long shifts at a busy reference desk where the intellectual challenge was daunting, because I had to shift constantly from one subject to another: It could be physics one moment, case law the next, pet care the one after that, and then finding a medical specialist, helping with a math problem, or looking up the bond rating for a corporation. I loved it. I had had a broad undergraduate education and was comfortable with math, science, technology, history, and the humanities, was fluent in two languages and had a grip on the basics of a couple more, knew all the nooks and crannies into which our culture tucked information, and had a good memory.
Before the library, I had prepared for an entirely different career but two years into it decided it wasn't for me and had begun casting about for something better to do. The young lady I was dating at the time -- now my spouse and still the best librarian I've ever seen -- understood my strengths and personality and suggested librarianship. She was right on target. I was never as happy as when I was on an extraordinarily busy reference desk, pre-Google, pulling the information rabbit out of the resources hat time and time and time again. I couldn't believe I was being paid -- and paid decently -- to have fun.
It seemed the very work I was designed and destined to do.
If I may be permitted a very late career brag: I was awfully good at it. I and a certain desk partner who was a lot like me and whose strengths balanced my weaknesses and vice versa, felt there was nothing . . . nothing . . . we couldn't answer or resolve. Our head of reference once glanced at us at the beginning of an evening shift and said "reference is in good hands tonight."
What a great compliment that was, and it was true.
You can imagine I'm slightly miffed at Google. But I'm no Luddite. I taught myself BASIC and Fortran programming while in library school, had a personal computer very early on, loved the web when I got wind of it (seeing it as the very embodiment of Theodore Nelson's hypertext scheme, though Ted would no doubt not agree that the web is indeed that embodiment), and created my library's first website in 1993. (I think we were among the first 50 public libraries to have one.)
I still think a reference librarian with an education both deep and broad and with a terrific memory can blow Google away. More to the point, such a librarian who knows how to wring out of Google everything it can provide can blow UG (unassisted Google) away.
So I hate to see some libraries completely concede reference to the bots, as at least one here in metro Phoenix has (but not mine).
But Americans hate middlemen and intermediaries, and librarians sure look like middlemen and intermediaries to me.
So I get it.
It isn't that UG -- unassisted Google -- is "good enough" for most searches; it's that many former patrons are going to prefer UG over us whether we like it or not, and whether they know it isn't as good for them or not, simply because they no longer need to appear before us as supplicants.
And so, any smart director knows he or she isn't going to need as many reference librarians, or degreed people, in the building as before, especially if in addition to reductions in reference work, outsourcing of collection development and cataloguing is implemented.
In short, the future needs much less reference help and a whole lot more computer help. It needs sharp library assistants, not librarians.
My wife probably wouldn't advise me to seek librarianship today and she says as much. I can't in good conscience advise people to seek jobs in the field, unless they realize exactly what they are getting into:
- Much less reference work; much more computer support and handholding. Less demand for professionals; more demand for paraprofessionals. - Less human contact; more reliance on bots, be they self-checks, unmanned book kiosks or something we haven't even thought of yet (see the August 2009 Library Journal cover story, "Self Service Library"). - Less focus on information, more on entertainment. - Redefinition of the library as "community center," with all that implies.
In short, it will be much less about information, and information quality, and self-education, and much more about providing and supporting a computing commons, media for entertainment, and premises for community activities.
No doubt socially useful work lurks in this future. Some may find excitement in redefining the library's mission and executing the new plan.
But the new library landscape seems to disrespect knowledgeability and authority. (And though as Americans we all love to heap abuse on authority, think how useful the old library notion of authority could be in a world of crowdsourcing, of "information" produced by amateurs or by those with hidden agendas.)
My decision to retire makes personal and financial sense for me and dovetails with my city's needs right now. But beyond such considerations, the new public library has much less need for librarians like me, and therefore it is indeed a good time for me to move on.
There isn't a market for what I do best.
Traditional librarian jobs are going to be much scarcer. Budget cuts lurk in our future as far as any horizon I can see. We will never see the funding levels again that we once had. Librarians will indeed retire, but their positions will be eliminated or converted into paraprofessional ones. I would have liked to see our profession and our institutions take on the bots. But that isn't going to happen, because the people who pay our salaries don't want us to take on the bots.
I would respectfully beg anyone thinking of seeking a professional degree in LIS to reconsider. There aren't going to be jobs for most of you, and even the few of you who do get jobs may find they are nothing like what you expected.
At the least, go in with your eyes open. It's going to be a rough ride for libraries and librarians. Immense piles of taxpayer money are going to be needed for health care and to service our debt to the central banks of China; much less will be available for things like libraries.
. . .
I am planning on a second act, but it won't involve libraries (or, since nothing is certain, I'll say I would be highly surprised if it did).
Once, a day at "work" was something I looked forward to and couldn't wait to get to. (Even today, post Google, it can still be.) It was an institution in which I was proud to work and a title I was proud to bear. It wasn't a job but a calling. I am lucky to have done it for so long with such good colleagues and such good patrons.
All that is good ends, and, as Robert Frost said, "Nothing gold can stay."
The Laws of Public Librarianship I have seventeen; Ranganathan had only five
Each law, principle, or rule appears with its name, its formulation, and a brief example – or expansion – of the concept:
1. The Law of Managerial Visitation
The likelihood that a library manager will visit your branch is inversely proportional to your traffic.
No matter how busy your branch normally is, your director will appear during the least busiest hour, of the least busiest afternoon, of the least busiest day, of the least busiest week, of the least busiest month, of the year. When your director does finally appear, she will find you engaged in a decidedly non-MLS activity such as cutting out turtle-shaped nametags for storytime.
2. The Law of Inverse Appreciation
Gratitude is inversely proportional to effort.
The patrons for whom you do the least are the most grateful; the patrons for whom you do the most are the least appreciative. You will be profusely thanked for looking up the location of a book; you will be only grudgingly acknowledged, if at all, for identifying the birth mother and birthdate of the patron’s great-great-grandmother, in Reykjavik, in 1839, after having located the pertinent records, arranged for their transmittal, and translated them from Icelandic.
3. The Law of Reaction
For every action, there is an equal and opposite complaint.
The law can be alternatively stated as “no good deed goes unpunished.” The first person who arrives at your long-demanded, highly anticipated drive-up bookdrop will berate you because the slot is too low for her immense SUV. If you planned carefully beforehand and built both high and low slots, you will be berated for not having a middle slot.
4. The Principle of Aggregated Disaster
One disaster provokes additional disasters.
The toilet in the public restroom will overflow, a child will be lost, the OPAC will crash, a drunk will throw up on the Sunday New York Times, and the fire alarm will go off, in that order, all within 30 seconds of one another. As soon as you deal with and resolve these, the power will go off and a ceiling panel will come loose and fall on the head of your most difficult patron.
5. The Rule of Universal Dysfunction
All libraries are dysfunctional, but in different ways.
Your colleagues are insufferable idiots but your building and systems work pretty good. Your best friend in another system works among princes and princesses whose intelligence, wit, and graciousness are your envy. His library’s roof, however, leaks like a sieve and his ILS is user-hostile, balky, and unreliable. 6. The Law of Attraction
The age of library furnishings is inversely proportional to their attractiveness as targets.
New carpet attracts sick children.
7. The Law of Mission Inflation
Library programs expand to fill whatever space, time, and money are available.
One day it will hit you that you don’t know exactly why you are providing free automotive lube, oil, and filter service at the library, though certainly there must have been a good reason, somewhere, sometime. 8. The Law of Expectation
The size of a library is inversely proportional to what is expected of it.
The patron is shocked . . . shocked . . . that your 8000-square-foot neighborhood branch doesn’t carry the complete run, in paper, of the Annals of the Canadian Society for Feline Ophthalmology.
9. The Principle of Staff Fungibility
Everyone who works in a library is a librarian.
Just like everyone who works in a hospital is a surgeon. 10. The Law of Perverse Funding
Funding is inversely proportional to need.
You have the greatest demand for service at precisely the moment your funding authority has the least money to give you. 11. The Principle of Remote Policy Implementation
The closer you are to the action, the smaller the amount of control you have over it.
You will be lectured on how to render customer service by people who last rendered customer service in the Pleistocene Epoch.
12. The Principle of the Titanic Deck Chairs
The greater your dysfunction, the greater your focus on design.
Your collection is as deep as a rain puddle and as broad as a rivulet, and your staff is snoozing, sour, and surly. Your color scheme, signage, and furniture, however, are state of the art.
13. The Rule of Selective Volunteerism
The work you need done the most has the least appeal.
Volunteers want to read stories to rapt, adorable children. Volunteers do not want to dust shelves.
14. The Law of Equipment Failure
The probability of equipment failure is directly proportional to the desperation of its user.
On the evening of April 15, the motherboard goes up in smoke precisely one minute before closing and exactly one second before the patron decides to click “submit” on the H&R Block website.
15. The Principle of Obfuscation of Metadata
Library labels and barcodes cover the most useful information on the book jacket.
A variation of this principle states that the smaller the item, the more library labels, barcodes, branch identifiers, cautions, and warnings-off it will require.
16. The Principle of Selective Credibility, or Cassandra's Rule
If it comes from staff, it isn't believed.
When staff reports that the public printer is on its last legs, nothing happens. When a citizen tells a council member that the printer over at the library is on its last legs, it gets promptly replaced.
17. The Law of Contrary Workloads
Traffic is directly proportional to workload.
The more projects you need to bring to the desk to work on, the busier you are with patrons. Alternatively: The one day you could use some time to work on a pressing deadline is the one day that 90 percent of the population of your service area decides it needs the library.
A longtime friend -- not a librarian but a person who uses the library regularly -- asked me this yesterday:
"I have always wondered why, at my library, they are constantly rearranging things. Just when I get used to the checkout desk being in one place, they move it to another. Ditto the New Books Display. What's the deal with this? It's damn annoying. I always end up having to ask where the heck something is now."
My answer was that in library school we were specifically trained to be on the lookout for when patrons are getting too comfortable with things. When we detect that, we spring into action and institute a rearrangement. Complacency is not a good thing.
Recent research shows that having to learn new patterns preserves brain cells (Tracey J. Shors, "Saving New Brain Cells," Scientific American, Vol. 300, No. 3, March 2009, pp. 47-54).
If librarians determine that a community is afflicted with high comfort levels and a lack of challenge, we respond accordingly.
But I told my friend he wouldn’t just have to take my word for it. Therefore, I enlisted the help of the folks at SurveyArmadillo.com and polled library directors across the nation. And now, I can tell you that we rearrange things just when our patrons have gotten comfortable with an existing arrangement because:
1. Paco Underhill said to do it.
2. Rearranging the furniture beats real work every time.
3. Library directors, in addition to being leaders and mentors, are interior-design geniuses.
4. The previous director had it that way, and it was wrong.
5. It's part of "excellent customer service," and, by God, the customers are going to get it whether they like it or not.
6. The old arrangement wasn’t consistent with the library’s brand. They should stop whining and just be grateful the library’s brand still includes books. For now.
Sometimes it does seem that way, doesn’t it? And yet, any veteran net writer who has posted to forums, blogged, or written articles for websites knows that this isn’t quite so.
The Internet does forget, and in the most perverse way possible.
That is, a Google search will ruthlessly reveal the intemperate posting you made, while drunk, one Saturday evening ten years ago. Your rant is still there, in all its ingloriousness, and does truly seem to be immortal, a spectre raised from a dank, fetid, unwholesome corner of your personality and freely available to any employer, colleague, or family member who cares to look for it.
We can be thankful that most don’t care to look for it.
And we can hope that we have now learned — unlike Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways, who drank and dialed — to never tipple and type.
But what about that carefully researched and cogently written essay that you contributed to a certain professional website? The one that did you proud, that declared to all both your high intelligence and your perspicacity, as well as your world-class vocabulary?
It has, of course, vanished into thin air when aforementioned professional website moved everything (but not quite everything) to a new server, and now it cannot be found anywhere, anyhow. Google knoweth it not, and therefore it existeth not. Even Google’s cache and the Wayback Machine have missed it.
You saved a copy on your hard drive, but that vanished long ago when you dropped your MacBook in the bath water. And you never did quite get around to that backup. But no problem, you thought, because the Internet never forgets.
Except that it does.
All the time.
I know what I’m talking about, for my best work has vanished, leaving only the stuff launched late at night after three glasses of cheap merlot.
Some years ago, I posted a fabulous piece to Publib, the online discussion group for public librarians. I dealt masterfully with a problem that has bedeviled our profession since we opened the first public library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833 — namely, how to keep library patrons from sneaking behind the reference desk to filch the hold-ID items such as the Value Line and Consumer Reports. (Not that they had IDs and the Value Line in 1833 but they no doubt had patrons trying to filch important 1833-type stuff from behind the desk.)
I explored, in depth, the three most practicable methods — poison gas, mines, and small-arms fire — examining the advantages and drawbacks of each approach, and richly supporting my contentions with references to the pertinent professional and scientific literature. My examination was both exhaustive yet succinctly written, a small masterpiece and — I have been told by those who read it when it still existed — one of the finest contributions to the professional literature in many a year.
But when Publib changed hosts, poof! — it was gone. You can search for it yourself in the Publib Archive — try “poison gas” as your search string — but you will find it not.
Thus, the Law of Selective Internet Immortality:
The likelihood of your work surviving forever on the net is inversely proportional to its significance.
The photo of you blowing milk out your nose will last forever; your brilliant multivariate analysis of revenue inputs and service outputs in public-sector institutions will vanish into thin air.