My professorial friend Mary Ann Bell sent an urgent notice out on both her blog and to LM_Net not long ago urging librarians to read Thomas Washington's editorial "Kids Reading Less and So Am I" that appeared in the February 9th Washington Post. In the piece, this school librarian reflects:
Who isn't having trouble concentrating [on reading] these days? Who doesn't find it nearly impossible to stick with a 450-page novel? I've come down with the same virus as the kids — the very group I criticize for ignoring the library's "new arrivals" book display.
I felt the same thing as blog reading became a habit and opined that I was reading differently in my column The Decline of Reading in October of 2006. As long ago as 1994, Birkerts in his book The Gutenberg Elegies complained that electronics was dooming reading and Professor Naomi Baron in a Los Angles Times opinion piece “Killing the written word by snippets” (Nov 28, 2005) bemoaned:
Will effortless random access [to snippets of books made available through Google Book Search] erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.
What looks like may be another nail in the coffin of sustained reading can be found in an observation in the British Library and JISC's study, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. (All educators, not just librarians, should read this very interesting and well-done report.) Although the purpose of the study was to study the information habits of the "Google" generation, it also reported:
While we have highlighted differences amongst scholarly communities in this paper it would be a mistake to believe that it is only students’ information seeking that has been fundamentally shaped by massive digital choice, unbelievable (24/7) access to scholarly material, disintermediation, and hugely powerful and inﬂuential search engines. The same has happened to professors, lecturers and practitioners. Everyone exhibits a bouncing / ﬂicking behaviour, which sees them searching horizontally rather than vertically. Power browsing and viewing is the norm for all.
So young and old alike are changing their reading/research habits, perhaps as a technique to survive the information avalanche, the data tsunami, the ... well, supply your own natural disaster metaphor here.
To degree, my adult readers, do exhibit some of these behaviors outlined in the British Library's report?
The main characteristics of digital information seeking behaviour in virtual libraries are:
- Horizontal information seeking A form of skimming activity, where people view just one
or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. ...
- Navigation People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply ﬁnding their way around: in fact they spend as much time ﬁnding their bearings as actually viewing what they ﬁnd.
- Viewers The average times that users spend on e-book and e-journal sites are very short: typically four and eight
minutes respectively. It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, .... It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
- Squirreling behaviour Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. ... there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read.
- Diverse information seekers Log analysis reveals that user behaviour is very diverse...: One size does not ﬁt all.
Checking information seekers Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).
Are you becoming more like the students you teach? (Heaven help you, middle school teachers!) Without the ability or inclination to "to follow a sustained line of reasoning" is civilization going to hell in a hand basket? Or are we all just learning to snow plow through the knowledge blizzard?