Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains posits the notion that the internet and its disjointed, interruptive character changes the way that humans process and read information. Naturally, the brain’s plasticity stretches to accommodate new approaches to old ways of doing things. Brains expand. Humans adapt. It’s a good thing.
Actually, dealing with interruptions isn’t new. Academic librarians have functioned in an interruption economy from the earliest days of the profession. At the beck and call of needy patrons, or “users,” as they’re named—which likens their need for information to a heroin or meth withdrawal— librarians expect interruption as a prerequisite to the job. Each day they steward the reference/information desk, they endeavor with the given that their attention will be diverted; scattered betwixt and between answering questions via phone, email, chat, texting, social networks, and the old-fashioned and generally preferred, in-person. Librarians have “work” that they bring to the reference desk: Browsing journals for current awareness, dipping into the latest mystery novel on the sly, updating our c.v. with an eye toward jumping ship at the first opportunity. Appearing busy and productive is vital to any academic position. By nature, the work librarians tote to the reference desk is superficial. The heavy scholarly research is left to the confines of our office when they’re “off the desk,” and theoretically protected from interruption long enough to do a thorough literature review.
Carr says that the new method of processing online information carries over into our offline lives. Pc-separation unsettles our brains, which crave the architecture and connectivity of the online environment. We’re driven to chat, check email, browse through websites, and click click click through to the next link even as we linger over a meal with our families. Naturally, being online requires the switching of mental gears plus a knack for multitasking. Yet, studies report that multitasking is inefficient and ultimately causes a drop in creative thinking.
This is not to say that academic librarians lack creative thinking. While there are no studies proving it, it’s possible that academic librarians are supertaskers –a small percentage of the population who successfully, as Don Troop phrases it, “perform the constituent tasks as well as or better than when they were completing the tasks individually.”
Are librarian’s brains better off than those of other academics? Perhaps they are ahead of the curve. The combined practice of multitasking and coping with an interruption economy primed their brains for the neurological changes the rest of the population are only now experiencing. While the internet-as-brain-interruption-mechanism may be new in terms of technology, the practice itself is not. It’s likely that many of us deal with such disruption in the course of our days on campus. Academic librarians, however, regard persistent interruptions as a matter of fact and incorporate that into their service philosophy. It’s yet another feat in the complement of dexterity librarians maintain.
Carr should study librarians’ neural pathways. After all, the oldest generations of librarians joined the profession because they loved information in its various forms: Books, journals, media, etc. Academic librarians are a distinctive class of information user. They adopt and adapt technology, yet maintain grounded in print culture. By valuing information in new and old forms, librarians equalize deep reading of texts with new habits of information seeking that defy concentration, thus successfully bridging the mental transformation challenging civilization.