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.

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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.

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.