At Least They’re Reading Something – Pt. 2

I’ve written before about some of these ideas when I was thinking about multitasking. Multitasking and Internet skimming seem to be two facets of the same problem. In some ways they both combine to reduce our ability to sustain focused concentration over time. I don’t mean to say that they’re all bad. Multitasking and skimming both have their place, and – like it or not – they’re both part of 21st century worklife. I worry though, that that we are rapidly becoming a society of skimmers, and the youngest readers are the ones who are most at risk

So what is the solution to this problem? Libraries have always sponsored reading programs, and that includes some built-in know-how. Combine that with some of the new information literacy programs, and I think a lot of people are on the right track. Teaching people to evaluate information is increasingly important. I think that libraries have a great opportunity to develop solid information literacy skills with the upcoming generation. Adding an Internet component to this is a logical extension. I’m trying to envision a good elementary or jr. high school reading program that combines Internet reading (not skimming) with thoughtful consideration of the content as well as careful questioning of the content’s authority and accuracy. What would that look like? Maybe someone has already built the ideal program and I just haven’t seen it yet.

The New York Times article I referenced in the previous post mentioned one thing that I found to be very encouraging. Many of the teens who are heavy Internet users are also writing a lot. They’re posting on message boards. They’re contributing to fan fiction sites. And if they’re writing on any level, hopefully they’re thinking about their content and how to present it. There is good writing and there is bad writing, but all writing can benefit from practice.

I would even venture to suggest that many of today’s teens are doing more writing than I did at that age. I wrote the papers that were required in classes, but that’s just about all I wrote. The nature of the Internet and particularly Web 2.0 applications drives participation. It demands putting something in – not just taking something out. I do have my concerns about teens’ Internet reading/skimming habits, but more writing is definitely a good thing!

At Least They’re Reading Something – Pt. 1

The New York Times ran a very interesting article a few days ago. The article considers a number of issues surrounding teens’ reading habits. It discusses “Internet reading skills” and the fact that this type of reading is not evaluated by standardized tests. It considers arguments that Internet reading is both helpful and harmful. Many of the readers’ comments are as interesting as the article itself. One of the ideas in particular took me by surprise. Some of the people quoted in the article and a number of the respondents took an attitude of “at least they’re reading something” and “Internet reading is better than no reading at all.”

Interesting ideas, but for me they ignore two of the fundamental questions: WHAT are they reading and HOW are they reading?

First the “what.” I think the content is far more important that the medium. If a person is reading War and Peace, the Wall Street Journal, or Plato’s dialogues, does the medium really matter? Of course not. Book, printout, computer screen, or smartphone – good content is good content. Let the readers choose the format that they find most comfortable. However, if a person’s Internet reading is limited to message board postings, instant messages, and MySpace comments, then the content is far less meaningful.

Next the “how.” There is a lot of variety in how people read Internet content. Some are reading articles in online journals. Some are reading public domain books. And some are clicking rapidly from page to page as quickly as the next tantalizing tidbit catches their eye. I don’t consider this last category reading. It’s skimming, and it’s creating a generation of people who can’t sustain prolonged, in-depth focus on content.

I’ve seen these people, and I’ve worked with them. It can be frustrating for both sides. They ask a question. You answer it. But they think you haven’t answered it because they only skimmed the reply. They didn’t READ the full details. There wasn’t a helpful picture or video embedded in the reply. There were no links to send them off to a host of Internet sites. There was merely clear content, but somehow they just couldn’t comprehend it.

Well duh!

A recent CNET headline proclaimed, “For teens, the future is mobile.” DUH! A quick look around confirms that for teens, the NOW is mobile. Anyone who watches and talks to cell phone-wielding teens knows that they love their cell phones. Many prefer texting over actually talking to someone. The story also reports a prediction that mobile phones will surpass the popularity of desktop computers for U.S. teens. Again, no big surprise. In fact, we may already be there.

The story did bring out one point that is well worth noting. Bill Carter of the marketing agency, Fuse, predicts, ” . . . mobile phone providers likely won’t succeed as the entertainment leaders for the phone, despite their efforts to sell ringtones, games, and music. Other companies like Apple, Google, and Yahoo will be more effective at ‘side-loading’ the cell phone with services.” I think this is an important trend to follow, both for consumers and libraries.

(Olsen, Stefanie. “For teens, the future is mobile.” CNET News. July 15, 2008. Available at http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-9991979-93.html.)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, my current phone is a Palm Treo. I’ve customized my phone with a number of applications that meet my needs. In contrast, one of my biggest gripes with the original iPhone was that Apple intentionally blocked users from truly making the device their own with specialized applications. Happily Apple has remedied this unfortunate situation with the introduction of the app store.

But what does this trend hold in store for libraries? What custom applications might library users need? When I started thinking about this, the first thing that came to mind was not an application at all. I started thinking about the library website. Just how well does your website play with mobile phones? If you’re not sure, just try browsing your website and searching your library catalog on your cell phone. If you think your website and catalog pass the test, start trying some of your databases. It really gets ugly there! Libraries need websites and catalogs that load quickly and work well with mobile devices. Handheld users don’t exactly have the fastest connection after all! But how about those databases on a mobile device? Ugly, ugly, ugly! So . . . perhaps a nice, clean, elegant widget for searching various library databases.

Beyond that, what else might a library user want to do with a cell phone? Bibliographic citation manager perhaps? How about a way to deliver due dates for checked-out items directly to the cell phone calendar? Stream audio and video content from the library’s media collection? Easily store e-books on the phone for reading later? Or let’s just get basic. How about texting with a reference librarian? Yes, I know that some libraries already do this, but maybe not enough of us are. If that is the preferred communication medium for our users, maybe we should explore it a little more.

Personal Information Devices

It appears that the servers are back up, activations are going smoothly (albeit slowly), and one million happy consumers are now packing an iPhone 3G.

Business types and technophiles have been using Blackberry devices, Treos, and other types of smartphones for awhile now, but I think the iPhone has perhaps been the most successful at generating glamorous, mass-market appeal. And no wonder! The device has a very sleek, refined GUI, great graphics, and a very functional web browser.

E-mail? Check!
Photos? Check!
Surf the Internet? Check!
And with the app store, users can now do even more with their phones.

This reminds me of Michael Stephens’ keynote address at the 2007 Library 2.0 Summit at Mississippi State University. During his address, Michael showed us a typical no-cell-phones-in-the-library sign (such as this one). Although this is standard in many, many libraries, it sends a strangely mixed message to library users. We have an up-and-coming generation of users for whom the cell phone is their primary information device. Some of these people use their cell phones more than than they use desktop or laptop computers. Then we have libraries – chock full of information and just waiting for an opportunity to share all of these great resources with their users. But we tell these same users that their primary information device is not welcome amongst our information. Oh the irony.

I think most reasonable people would agree that the typical, loud cell phone conversation would be better held outside the library. But the signs don’t say “no loud talking.” They say “no cell phones in the library,” or sometimes “turn your phone off while you’re in the library.” The effect then, is that our users can’t check homework assignments with their phones, they can’t search our resources with their phones, they can’t take research notes with their phones . . .

Maybe it’s time for libraries to rethink their positions on cell phones.

Plurk

A lot of librarians love Twitter. Some of them are downright rabid about it. Twitter was mentioned a number of times at the recent American Library Association annual conference, and it was used as part of the technology for some of the sessions. But competition spurs innovation, right? Enter Plurk. Plurk is another microblogging service. For those who want to know more, here is an article comparing Twitter and Plurk.

Multitasking

This is the age of multitasking, but I’m firmly convinced that this is not always a good thing. It seems that the more we divide our time among different projects, the less “quality time” each project will receive. Besides that, if we’re rapidly shifting focus between multiple projects, I believe that we gradually lose our ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time.

As an example of this, I will point out the loss of effective communication I’ve observed over the past few years. People are trying to do so many things that they don’t have time to completely focus on anything. As a result, they often only have a chance to skim e-mail messages, reports, and other forms of communication. There is no time for in-depth reading or analysis. Ultimately this means that they miss important details. I can think of countless times when this has happened in the workplace. With more and more diverse tasks in our daily jobs, it seems that this problem can only escalate.

There are those who are very good multitaskers, but that still does not overcome the fact that they are constantly dividing their focus and concentration between multiple projects, and no single project can receive their undivided attention for a long time.

The New Atlantis posted an interesting article about multitasking here.