Library is Dead.
Long Live the Library...
Our Attention Span Shrinking?
belief was that all this technology would enable students
to be better scholars than ever. They could access information
more quickly, place a range of opinions on screen to be viewed
at a glance, and instantly browse documents that scholars before
them may have had to travel to look through. So are students better
than ever? "I'm skeptical," says Rubin. In fact, he and many professors
believe students' (and others') research may actually be less
informed and more superficial than ever.
one of the biggest concerns is that this new, surf-able
medium may create non-readers with gnat-like attention spans.
Professors stand on one side of the divide, holding that
students only want bites of information and clickable answers.
Internet professionals, on the other hand, maintain that
the Internet has no impact on off-screen reading. They maintain
that scanning is a Web-only behavior.
know hundreds of people who scan the Internet for seconds
at a time, but can then become immersed for hours in a Victorian
novel," says Christine Gannon-Brodeur '89, CEO of Socket
Media, a Los Angeles-based agency that provides branding
and media-services to high-tech companies.
flit around the Internet because it's designed to make us
do that, says Ben Jones '96, director of Web design and
production in the Boston office of About.com. "The Web is
fantastic for short things. It's very visual," he says.
"People don't like huge bodies of text on the Internet;
they don't like to scroll through documents." Jones suspects
people use the Web for initial research, but then pull real
books and documents off real shelves for serious study,
or at least print or download relevant documents from the
Web to pore over later.
the virtual avalanche of information resulting from an electronic
search may be a bigger problem than the Web's sound-bite
nature. "What has also shortened," maintains Gannon-Brodeur,
"is our patience for the information-gathering process."
This may cause people to quit the process too early, simply
taking the first two or three things they get because they've
already invested a lot of time in finding them.
troubling, the Internet may lull us into a dangerously false
sense of completeness. Users may believe that the two or
three things that surface with a Web search are all that's
available, says Ray English, the College's director of libraries.
English cited one College course in which students are asked
to find out what they can about the hazardous environmental
effects of a certain chemical compound. About 75 percent
of students search the Internet, get lost, and don't find
too much information. Some will search the library's catalog
and find something. Some may find a library database there
that deals with chemistry and the environment. "An even
smaller number," he says, "would learn that there's a printed
encyclopedia or handbook in the library that would solve
the problem just like that."
Even Gannon-Brodeur, who has taken numerous Internet companies
from start-up through IPO, merger, or acquisition, believes
it's often worthwhile to sign off the Internet. "There is
an advantage to a slower research process, even using handwritten
notes, which allows students to absorb information more
fully," she says. "As a side benefit, it avoids that deadly,