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 Atlantic.com. July/August 2008. 19 August 2008. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200807/google
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 https://www.brainhq.com/world-class-science/science-team/dr-michael-merzenich
The Official Site for the Estate of Marshall McLuhan. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2017, from http://www.marshallmcluhan.com/
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_design
REED, P. (2015). Technology and the contemporary library. Insights: The UKSG Journal, 28(2), 81-86. doi:10.1629/uksg.244