Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two articles worth reading

Two recent articles cover topics which library patrons and the reading public in general might find of interest. The first is Robert Darnton’s June 12 New York Review of Books article entitled The Library in the New Age. Darton is Director of the University Library at Harvard, and while he is principally concerned with the relevance of research libraries in the current information age, (he argues convincingly that every age is an age of information) some of his key points are equally applicable to public libraries. The whole article is well worth reading. His case for the instability of information is particularly good, with a wonderful example based on contemporary reports of Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Brandywine.

For those who value public libraries, there are some particularly resonant comments at the end of the article. I am especially fond of the following passages: “[D] on’t think of it [the library] as a warehouse or museum. While dispensing books most research libraries operate a nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses…As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.” I think these sentiments are equally applicable to public libraries. While dispensing books and other media, the Otis library is also a forum, and a conduit for information in digital and printed formats. It is a source for original research, a classroom, and a community center. This is as it should be. A key challenge for Otis and other libraries now and in the future will be maintaining their importance to the communities they serve. That requires adaptability to changing needs. Otis Library takes that challenge seriously, and strives to be a good example of what Darnton calls a traditional service moving with the times.

The second article of note, by Nicholas Carr is entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? and appears in the most recent Atlantic Monthly magazine (July/August 2008). The central theme is the impact of online searching and surfing on critical thinking and reading. Carr summarizes the perceived changes in the way he reads and his ability to immerse himself in books and lengthy articles: “[M]y concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” It is that ability to read deeply and analyze complexities that on line reading practices sunder. Quoting Maryanne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Carr wonders if “the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and ‘“immediacy”’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerges when an earlier technology, the printing press made long and complex works of prose commonplace.”

It is a good question, albeit one even Carr stops short of answering categorically. I suspect I see evidence of the symptoms in my own evolving reading habits, but I leave it to you to test his thesis after reading the article.

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