Book Review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr


Course Context:
One dominant theme of the Hyperlinked Library (Info 287) course thus far has been the tension that arises in libraries and communities over the speed of change, especially as it relates to technology.

We learned from our foundation readings ( Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto, Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service, Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup.) that change in libraries is inevitable. Change can either be embraced as a catalyst to better meet user needs or as the source of seemingly endless conflict and strife within the library organization. The authors of our foundational readings point out that when we resist change we ultimately end up shortchanging library users because we aren’t meeting their needs at the pace that is required. We need to be nimble and one part of being dexterous is accepting and understanding technology.

Prof. Stephens has made the point in various module lectures that technology itself doesn’t indicate change (ie: “hyperlinked libraries are about people, not about technology”) but it is how we choose to employ technology in the library that is the key to the success of the hyperlinked library. Prof. Stephens states that books are the “library brand” of the past and that we need to begin to rebrand our core “product” to include all of the ways that our patrons need to access and analyze information, most notably online.

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicolas Carr has tremendous applicability to the themes we are exploring in the Hyperlinked Library course.  

Prof. Stephen’s introduced the class to a book by John Palfrey called Born Digital which focuses on the implications of technology on a generation of people who have never lived in a world without the internet.

I read Born Digital and it reads as almost an epilogue to Carr’s The Shallows because the Shadows clearly outlines what the internet is doing to all of our brains, regardless of generation, and the changing ways we learn as a result of spending so much time online.

The author, Nicolas Carr, takes on a number of themes and challenges that librarians grapple with as we seek to create the library 2.0 and embrace participatory design in our libraries. Carr claims that society will only become more complex with increased user connectivity in the future and this clearly has an impact on the libraries we are seeking to create.

Carr provides explanation and more in-depth analysis of the impact of the internet on learning a lecture he gave at Harvard in 2012.

In The Shallows, the author asks, “Is Google making us stupid?” and while he doesn’t come down definitively on one side of the question, Carr does present a compelling range of scientific evidence that if Google isn’t making us stupid it is, at a minimum, changing the way our brains work. The book serves, first and foremost, as an account of the brain science related to memory and attention in our increasingly technology-laden world.

Carr presents two disparate understandings from the field of neuroscience on how the brain functions. First, Carr explains and dismantles the long-held notion that the brain becomes fixed at a certain age (long before adulthood) and is unchangeable in its ability and form after it calcifies.  Carr then contrasts this view to the recent conception that the brain is plastic and that this plasticity creates a mental environment that can respond to trauma (in the extreme cases) but also can be rewired in relationship to new activities and oft-repeated mental tasks.

Carr provides evidence of the brain’s plasticity by providing examples of studies done over the past 50 years on lab animals and humans; he presents striking examples of taxi drivers in London who have visibly larger segments of their brain where spatial memory is held compared to those brain areas of the general population due to the overuse of spatial reasoning of the taxi drivers. He writes about stroke victims who, after eight-hour days of constantly repeated tasks, end up regaining sensation and movement in limbs due to the fact that the patients have essentially re-trained, and even more significantly, physically reshaped, their brains. 

Researcher Michael Merzenich provides more information about the internet and brain plasticity in this Ted Talk from 2004.

While the brain science and subsequent studies on plasticity are interesting, what do they have to do with technology, literacy development, and library science work? It turns out, the rise of technology and the near ubiquitous use of the internet, has fundamentally altered the brains of many library users. Carr claims that the tools we once employed for reading in a linear fashion or the insularity of spending time alone with a book are no longer the tools we employ when we engage with text on the internet, especially hyperlinked text.

Carr makes the necessary distinctions between digital natives and those who migrated from the analog world to the digital world and he claims that the adult brain (the non-digital native) has gained some proficiencies but not without cost. John Palfrey’s Born Digital explains the implications of technology on learning when the learner hasn’t experienced any other conditions whereas Carr focuses more on those of us who have transitioned from a pre-internet to the post-internet world.

Carr examines the constant need for a “hit” of information and the ways we’ve adapted our reading to be fast moving the way we approach reading without the intention of wanting or needing to read long and detailed text passages. Carr interviews graduate students who rhetorically ask, “Why would I spend time reading the entire book when I could just read the summary online? It is more efficient that way.” Like many non-natives, Carr laments the fact that he feels he has lost his ability to concentrate deeply and spend sustained time with one idea or one text. Carr presents digital natives as having brains that are wired (due to repetition and constant interaction with technology) to read in nonlinear ways and to scan text rather than read deeply and for complex meaning.

Carr finds a correlation between the studies of brain plasticity and the fact that we using our brains in new and unchartered ways when we use technology. He claims that we can’t help but be reshaping the chemistry and connections in our brains in response to the technologies we spend so much time with. Carr frequently refers to Marshall McLuhan, the self-proclaimed father of Media Studies, when pointing to the ways that the “medium and the message” are intertwined. Like McLuhan, Carr comes to the conclusion in The Shallows that we are not as able as we may think to separate from our machines because we may actually be altering our biology and brain chemistry in response to technology and, as a result, we may be shifting to act and “think”, or at least mirror and emulate, our tools.

The Shallows pulls the cover off many of the essential questions and challenges of the hyperlinked library:

  • How do we encourage participatory design while holding on the importance of analog resource in a high-tech culture?
  • How can the internet foster “radical transparency” in the library?
  • How can librarians incorporate and embrace technology without abandoning over modes of learning and interaction?  What can the analog resources in a library offer what technological resources can’t?
  • How should we adapt our libraries to respond to the fact that library users are re-shaping their brains and mental agility through interaction with technology?

My main take-a-way after reading The Shallows was that I am more convinced than ever that these questions need to be explored head on and that librarians seeking to create a truly hyperlinked library ought to understand and adapt to the reality that the internet is unequivocally changing how each of thinks and learns. Librarians are uniquely qualified to raise these issues in our communities and organizations. We need to use the studies that Carr presents on technology and its impact on literacy and learning from brain science fields to inform our design and implementation decisions for library strategic plans and policies. The fast pace of change online and in our hardware options is not going to change. We need to accept it and, as Casey states in Library 2.0,  we need to view these changes as positive drivers rather than obstacles to maintaining the status quo. We ought to create libraries for the users we have, not the users we want or used to have.


Buckland, M. (1993). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Chicago: American Library Association.

Carr, N. G. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: Norton.

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The July/August 2008. 19 August 2008.

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2009). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD. (2017, January 23). Retrieved September 17, 2017, from

The Official Site for the Estate of Marshall McLuhan. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2017, from

Palfrey, J. G., & Gasser, U. (2011). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Sydney: Read How You Want.

Participatory design. (2017, September 17). Retrieved September 17, 2017, from

REED, P. (2015). Technology and the contemporary library. Insights: The UKSG Journal, 28(2), 81-86. doi:10.1629/uksg.244


Foundational Readings: Module 2

Design Thinking and Library 2.0

The foundational readings for modules 1 and 2 left me thinking about a few key themes that I imagine will come up again and again in this course on the hyperlinked library. The readings for these modules included:

The themes and questions that come to mind for me after reading these pieces relate primarily to the intersection of the technological advances of the past decade with the structures of the “analog” library and the role of the user in the design of future library methods and organization. Buchwald states in his manifesto that the “future of library services arouses both excitement and unease.” The ways we deal with our discomfort and accept and welcome change will help us to create the libraries that our users deserve.

I was reminded throughout Mathews’ article Think like a startup and Casey’s Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service of the concepts of design thinking and user-centered design principles. I currently work in public education and in the past five years or so, the concepts and theories of design thinking have begun to permeate the field. In particular, the Stanford Design School has created a range of industry specific tools for organizations to address challenges such as the use of techniques such as ideation, prototyping, reflection, and enacting a model.  The articles for this module don’t explicitly name design thinking as such but they do highlight that design thinking principles have and continue to inform the work of creating the next phase library (library 2.0).

The Matthew’s article struck me as coming from a design thinking modality in that he argues that a successful library is one that adapts to the needs of users, acts rather than waits for perfection, and learns from challenges and enacted solutions. He argues that similar to a start up culture, libraries need to be ready for and embrace “constant change.”  The design thinking theories require that decision makers get out of the mode of tinkering around the edges (like in the vacuum example that he provides)  and instead be ready to accept that the solution may exist outside of constructs that feel familiar and comfortable. He writes that “evolution is happening” and we can either accept and direct it or we can be victims of change and watch as libraries wither around us. Mathewes provides a few concrete examples of libraries who have approached change from a dynamic and positive perspective. The D. H. Hill Library Learning Commons and the NCSU Libraries are examples of such libraries where the organizations didn’t run from change or, to use Mathew’s vacuum analogy, didn’t try to adapt the solution to the known, but instead welcomed the chance to define and create a new solution.

Another aspect of design-thinking that I found in each of the foundational readings is that of user-centered design principles. The core argument in Casey’s Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service is that we can’t address user needs if we don’t know what they are and if we don’t have tools to understand and measure user needs we can’t design libraries for the future. The book outlines a number of such tools including surveys, but the authors are quick to point out that administering a user or patron survey is not the same as being responsive to the genuinely expressed needs and interest of users. Often, the authors argue, we try to fit our existing methods, tools, and library organizational systems to match to user needs rather than being willing to fundamentally shift our structures.  The libraries featured in Library 2.0 seek to address the question: “How can libraries support 21st century learners?”

One example of participatory service-oriented design is the Gwinnett County Public Library’s Rock the Shelves band night. The library system determined that users were interested in using the library as a social space and as vehicle to deepening a sense of community.  The Gwinnett Library case study is a strong example of phase two of most design thinking process which consists of generating ideas from users. The Gwinnett County Public Library, and others who consider themselves to be enacting library 2.0 principles, aim to be the “intellectual soul of the community.”

The article that I struggled with this most in terms of finding immediate relevance to the current challenge in creating 2.0 library was Buckland, M. (1992), Redesigning library services: A manifesto. I found the article to be interesting because, in many aspects, it reads as a timeless foreshadowing to the themes and issues outlined in the Library 2.0 book. While I understand that the manifesto is meant to be a more theoretical approach to change and preservation in libraries, I was distracted by some of the examples given because they felt dated in our current context.  For example, the discussion of electronic records does not take into account “born digital” sources and records which, obviously, did not exist when Buchwald was writing. Buchwald’s manifesto does fit into the design thinking paradigm in that the manifesto restates the importance of user-centered library design, in spite of the somewhat antiquated examples he provides. Buchwald’s manifesto presents a clear “emphasis on service to library users. Libraries are, essentially, utilitarian constructs. That which tends toward the greatest happiness of the greatest number is good; that which does not is bad. Libraries exist to serve and to be used.” Again, in spite of the specific examples from 1992 that aren’t as relevant today, the guiding philosophy of the manifesto feels fresh in the context of a discussion of library 2.0.

Buchwald claims that we are “losing the interest of our users. We no longer consistently offer the services our users want. We are resistant to changing services that we consider traditional or fundamental to library service. We are no longer the first place many of our current and potential customers look for information.”  Buchwald’s warnings about not keeping users at the center of our decision making and the organizational structures of libraries are echoed decades later in Mathewes Think Like a Startup.

After reading the foundational texts for these modules, I am left feeling curious about the ways that forward thinking libraries have approached using design thinking, if at all.  I would like to research and learn more about design-thinking informed library policies and programs.



Welcome and Hello Fellow Classmates!

Hello! I am looking forward to this course because I want to become more well-versed in the tools that librarians use to create a more hyperlinked experience for users. I am in my final semester of the MLIS program. I took a semester off last spring and I started in Winter 2016. I’ve done the program full time while also working full time for the San Francisco Unified School District as an administrator. I decided to do the MLIS program because I am interested in the variety of careers that the MLIS degree will allow me to access and I think it will be a good degree to have for any future career change that I may plot in the future. I am particularly interested in archive work and academic libraries. Last spring I moved to Little Rock, AK to do an MLIS internship at the Clinton Presidential Library where I worked as a NARA intern and did preservation work and FOIA processing. I am really interested in the intersection of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), federal records law, and technology. I am deeply interested in the kinds of questions that arise in the public sector around the balance of privacy and commitment to open access of records to the public.