‘Information Overload’ Exaggerated (Just Like the Study That Says That)

Via Stephen’s Lighthouse:

“Information overload” may be an exaggerated way to describe today’s always-on media environment. Actually, very few Americans seem to feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens, according to a new Northwestern University study.

Interesting, I thought. Could the Clay Shirky ‘filter failure’ of 2008 be a relic of the past? Have people gotten a hang of drinking from the information fire hose?

Well, not quite.

“There’s definitely some frustration with the quality of some of the information available,” said Hargittai. “But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices.”

The few participants who did feel overwhelmed were often those with low Internet skills, who haven’t yet mastered social media filters and navigating search engine results, Hargittai noted.

That last part sounds right up my alley: teaching people computer skills as well as showing them the tools to help them find what they seek. It’s a simply premise of the library being able to provide the latest to the people who are computer savvy while teaching those who seek to learn how. Plus, it totally fits into the extended mission of the library.

Although, to be honest, I’m not completely sold on the study and I don’t even need to read the actual paper to come to that conclusion.

“[R]esearchers recruited vacationers in Las Vegas to participate in focus groups. Seven focus groups were conducted with 77 total participants from around the country.” (Emphasis mine)

So, out of seventy seven people who went to Las Vegas (a sensory overload of another type but I digress), most people liked all the information in their lives and a couple of people didn’t. I’m not certain what this paper really proves except that it needs bigger and deeper studies.

This really makes me wonder what people consider to be ‘tons of options’. Would it be the first page of results on Google? All one thousand results from the search query? The reported billions and billions of results that it says are out there? And more media choices, what exactly does that mean? Netflix and iTunes?

In the giant pie chart of knowledge, this one seems like it falls squarely into the category, “Shit you don’t know that you don’t know”. What do you think?

If Information is Food, What Does It Mean to Say, “You Are What You Eat”?

I recently watched a TED talk by J.P. Rangaswami entitled “Information is Food”. His premise (for those of you who aren’t going to watch the video right now) is that information is the input for the mind just as food is the input for the body.  Our creation, cultivation, and consumption of information follow similar patterns to that of its food model. In essence, the information we take in to our bodies shapes our minds just as the food we eat shapes our bodies. He ends with a question: what would we do differently with our information consumption if we treated information as food?

This particular TED talk got me scribbling notes even before it was over. As someone who thinks of himself as an information professional, the idea of information being akin to food brought up some disturbing questions and line of thoughts. If information is food, what does that make a library? In accepting that “information equals food” analogy premise for the purpose of this blog post, I’m not sure it’s a good thing for libraries.

Even before this TED talk, there was a “library is an information buffet” analogy that existed; that a library had something for everyone’s taste. But in looking at the real food equivalent, the buffet has come to symbolize the growing rise of obesity in the United States. People have taken the guideline of ‘all you can eat’ as a challenge and put enough food into their bodies to blow the doors off their daily recommended caloric limit. Could a similar parallel be drawn between the constant contact of mobile devices, the near limitless number of internet sites, and print, television, and radio broadcasts? In working on portraying libraries as being “more than just books”, there is a push to showcase other media: DVDs, CDs, magazines, tapes, and now the expansion of digital content. Are we now setting up our own buffet in this age of information excess? Are we part of a overarching system that works to cater to the (for lack of a better term) information obese?

In taking this food buffet analogy further, librarians strive to not make distinctions between certain types of information. It would be like placing the crème pie and vodka penne sit next to the salads and Greek yogurt and telling people there was absolutely nothing different between these dishes. It’s the same as having book displays with Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen sitting next to Fifty Shades and the Snooki novel. Whatever you want to read/eat, this is a judgment free zone. In fact, we encourage you to stuff your face/mind so long as you keep coming back. That doesn’t sound healthy in the slightest in either way that you consider it. This basic premise that “all books are equal” falls flat when so many librarians rely on book reviews to assist in collection development. Material is purchased on the good words of another as to why it would be an asset to a collection. Someone made a judgment to purchase a title over another title with a lesser recommendation. Why this sudden façade of neutrality when it hits the shelves?

One might argue that it is imperative for the librarian to be neutral in order to allow the library member to make a decision on the basis of their own preferences. I can get behind that notion up until the point where the person asks a librarian for a recommendation. After years of careful cultivation of the literature expert image, this is where our bias should show and work toward recommending better literature. This is not wholesome ignoring the wants and preferences of a library member, but showing our expertise in steering people away from junk food literature to the nutritionally sound prose. People are still welcome to pick up that Big Mac equivalent of a book, but they should be aware of the grilled chicken salad-like hardcover.

Some of my readers are probably wondering how this squares with a belief in information access. Such an important principle and concept is not lost on me here; I am still a believer and an advocate for it. But I can’t help but feel that the reality creates a fine line between unfettered and reasonable. I would always try to lean in favor of the former in terms of materials, but as a member of a profession that claims expertise in information cultivation, I cannot help but think that such a skill be applied to make it more in line with the former. In light of the food analogy, it behooves us to point out the better information and literature.

Nor am I advocating for censorship either. Go on and buy the Snooki book or Fifty Shades because of the popular demand for such titles, but there is nothing that says one has to highlight or prominently display the ownership of said items. Inclusion in the collection does not mean it has to be marketed or advertised in light of better options. Such material and its ilk can reside with the rest of collection.

Granted, not all libraries fall into this analogies so neatly. The narrower the collection, the less buffet-like the results are. This puts public libraries firmly in the Golden Corral camp with school and academic libraries in the middle somewhere and special libraries somewhere at the bottom. Just like many bloggers that write about libraries, your mileage from this post may vary on the basis of type.

Librarians like to imagine that they are curators and cultivators of information, but when the goal is to collect the best of the broadest amount of media and materials, I think it can get a bit murky. If information is food, then librarians are nutritionists. People will consume what they want when it comes to either food or information, but that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices. The Twinkie and the celery stick can sit next to each other on the shelf, but their nutritional information gives away what they offer the body. Librarians should consider the same examination of information nutrition when purchasing materials, making recommendations, and caring for their communities.

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In no uncertain terms, the funding that supports our profession has taken beating on both the local and national level. This year, there will be cuts, layoffs, and closures despite our best lobbying efforts. But while there will be less money going around in the public and private sector for the next couple of years, an article I got today from my Twitter friends really made me think that there will be a upcoming shift as to where information management and interpretation skills will be needed.

The article by the Economist entitled “Data, data everywhere” talks about the skyrocketing growth in the sheer volume of information. I’m not shy to admit that it used prefixes to the word –byte that I had never heard of; it’s staggering on a scale that is breathtaking. According to Cisco systems, “[b]y 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes” (or 667,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or 1/3rd of a zetabyte).

That’s a lot of bytes. Eventually, I presume they will have to start smashing other Greek words together to make up new prefixes.

Aside from this momentary levity, I think this presents an emerging opportunity for information professionals (such as librarians) to shift gears in the way that they approach and treat information. The other quotation that made me sit up in my chair was from Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Data, he explains, are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.

There is an economic value to the management, storage, indexing, and retrieval of this relentless data creation. In addition, there is greater value for being able to analyze and interpret it as well as being able to translate or explain it to others. This data, in quantities not seen before in the long story of humanity, means little to nothing if it cannot be arranged or deciphered.

“The data-centred economy is just nascent,” admits Mr Mundie of Microsoft. “You can see the outlines of it, but the technical, infrastructural and even business-model implications are not well understood right now.”

Take a moment to read the article and see what I mean. While some roles of librarianship will remain the same moving ahead, the nature of information is morphing. It’s on the move, expanding at an exponential rate. Perhaps Seth Godin was right about one thing; this new data world will need sherpas. And that should be us.

“I can quit Googling anytime, man!”

On the heels of last night’s post, I saw this older article come across Twitter entitled “100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information”. Apparently, it would appear that librarians are not simply the kind, educated information philanthropists that society and culture has caricatured us. No, we are users and pushers for the dopamine system.

[…] the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases our general level of arousal and our goal-directed behavior. (From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive). It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opoid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure.

And, of course, it’s not without potential drawbacks.

With the internet, twitter, and texting we now have almost instant gratification of our desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type it into google. What to see what your friends are up to? Go to twitter or facebook. We get into a dopamine induced loop… dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.

I’m curious to see further research or postings on the dopamine system, but I’m not sure if I’m perpetuating a dopamine loop or engaged in a legitimate short term inquiry. But, I swear, a couple of database searches and I’ll drop it.

Honest!

Wednesday Night Deep Thought, Ctd

On the drive to the beach today, I heard an interview on Here and Now on NPR that caught my attention. It was with Ric O’Barry, the trainer of Flipper, who started the interview talking about animals in captivity (specifically dolphins) and how they are adversely affected by the contained environment. Basically, the dolphins do not thrive in a relative sensory free environment. It got me thinking to some of the general barriers of access that sometimes impede our patrons.

I felt inspired and started writing out the shell of a blog post. But as I sat on the deck with the summer breeze drifting over the dunes, something felt off. Then I eyed the crayons of my five year old cousin sitting on the table. There are some times when illustration trumps prose; this was one of those times.

Crayons are the original Powerpoint. Thanks, Emma!

So what are the barriers? What can be helped? What can’t be helped but possibly made easier? Those are the questions I’ll be taking back with me to work next week. Ease of access is not simply a convenience, but a necessary aspect for our patrons.

The Future of Ye Olde Library

Buffy Hamilton (The Unquiet Librarian) introduced me to Helene Blower’s blog Library Bytes the other night. As soon as I added it to my Google Reader, this little gem of a post popped out at me.

An open information bar? Or a theatre of knowledge? of something else? The question is "what is the library of the future in a networked world?"

With this video:

And I watched it again. And then a third time. You get the picture.

In regard to the questions poised, I think an open information bar is an ill-fitting metaphor. While the personalized dispensary aspects of the bar might be more apt to people’s requests for materials, it maintains the traditional patron-librarian-material chain of interaction that has fallen out of favor. Rather than linear, the aspects should represent points on a triangle with all members having equal access to each other. The metaphor’s presence of a barrier to access (i.e. a bar) that is keeping patrons from what they are seeking is unsettling for a future library vision. Although, it certainly does bring new meaning to the phrase “drunk on knowledge”.

I believe that the future of the library is more like a theatre of knowledge; specifically, an information renaissance faire. Whether it is to put on garb and take part in the experience (your serious library users, loyal patrons) or simply to come and enjoy the sights and sounds (casual users, “I have a report due on Monday” now-and-again patrons), patrons will be able to choose their level of interaction, collaboration, and participation in the library. The immersive experience will allow the patrons to dismiss their preconceived notions of the limits of knowledge and open their minds to the full potential of the information age. Just as a regular renaissance fair invokes a friendly form of make believe rooted in the modern age, the future library should seek to create a comfortable and safe environment for people to act upon their imagination, creativity, and curiosity.  This sense of familial connection is what will fuel collaborative intellectual exploration outside of the library through web and mobile applications. These standalone tools will serve as faithful companions, ever present for consultation in the evolving life of a patron. Even if the patron chooses to utilize the library remotely, the information renaissance faire will continue on, presenting and challenging people with a different way to consider the world around them.

Everywhere is here, indeed.

The Personal Reference Touch

Within the last year or so, I’ve read and heard a lot of discussion about how the library could take lessons from retail. Most notably, the retail industry has done all of the research when it comes to layout and design of spaces. They know how people shop, how people act when presented with a layout, display, or other store feature, and how to adjust things so as to get the most desirable consumer reaction. The department stores you walk into are the sum total of this exploration into how people hunt and gather for their shopping needs. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, really, to mimic some of these attributes with our own libraries. If we can get people to take a second look or listen to what we have to offer, it is certainly energy well spent.

There is also some discussion about what lessons we can take from retail customer service. Patrons have come to expect a similar customer experience since they are engaging in the same steps (e.g. find a product, bring it to a counter, hand over a card, get the product and card back, leave). I think that, while a retail style interaction is logical for the circulation desk, I would hesitate to apply the principles to the reference desk. Any librarian can tell you of the many common questions and requests to the gamut of deeper inquiries and searches that patrons can bring. The principles of retail, for me, seem to fall flat on their face in the face of such diversity. I had been wracking my brain for a better customer interaction model for a good week and I think I’ve stumbled upon it: concierge.

Most online definitions of a concierge lean towards someone who cares for the physical needs of their clients, but I’d like to think that the underlying concept is still sound. It is a person who attends to the requests and needs of their client (in this case a patron). While it’s not setting appointments or arranging for dry cleaning, I don’t see much of a difference in placing holds, making calls on their behalf to other libraries for information, assisting with computer or copier problems, or researching complicated questions. Each patron comes to the reference desk with their own inquiries and requests. The customer service goal of the reference librarian should be to provide the patron with a personally tailored experience. That type of interaction is what brings people back to the library over time as they know that there is someone who will invest time and effort into what they seek. Much in the same way that a hotel concierge sees to the needs of guests, a reference librarian attends to the intellectual needs of the patron.

For certain, the next time my job title comes up, I’m going to be pressing for “Information Concierge”. It just has a special ring to it.

Cross posted to LISNews.