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Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.

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About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader. By day she's adult services manager at her small city's public library with a particular passion for readers' advisory. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian (https://thenocturnallibrarian.com/) and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious (http://bookconscious.wordpress.com/). Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

3 responses to “Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

  1. Good stuff here. Carr does argue that there is an inherent aspect to books that promotes more focus and comprehension over electronic reading methods…I’m inclined to agree. Smart phones, tablets, and computers provide proximity to readily available distractions that many users cannot ignore. It is only with mild sarcasm that I refer to it as the “Alt-Tab Generation.”

  2. Pingback: First year reading, middle-age style « bookconscious

  3. Pingback: Shushing | The Nocturnal Librarian

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