Digital attention spans

Like many academic libraries, mine holds a vast number of full text journals online, via our databases as well as some electronic serials subscriptions. So I was interested to see a recent article arguing that perhaps the internet hasn’t killed attention spans, and readers are capable of taking in longer articles online.

Except when I read it, I learned that the Pew study the article references didn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture when you dig into it. First of all the study was examining internet news consumption, which is arguably easier to read than academic journal articles. Pew found that “the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57.”

123 seconds per long article. I was curious about the average words read in a minute, so I looked that up. According to both The Guardian and The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science the average adult reads about 300 words per minute. So, if people are spending 123 seconds, or just over two minutes, on articles over 1000 words, they are probably reading just over half or less, depending on the article’s length.

That may very well be the reality of the digital journal reading. Who among us hasn’t skimmed to get to the part of an article we wanted to read, skipping stuff that doesn’t seem as relevant or important? I’ve done it, especially at work. I think this kind of reading can be important when time is short and the material I’m trying to tackle is voluminous. I’d also argue that our educational system promotes this kind of skimming for comprehension because it’s an essential skill for standardized test taking.

But when I do have time, say on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, to read every word of a long article in the newspaper or from a pile of magazines that stacks up all week, or to dive deeply into a good book, I savor that kind of reading. So for me, print triggers a desire to “slow read,” and electronic content seems to motivate me to skim. But that could be a factor of where and when I am doing each kind of reading. Work isn’t conducive to “slow reading.” Home is.

Regardless of how I or anyone else feels about digital or print reading, I think what really caught my eye is that Pew merely found in its study that people are engaging with long form online content, but the article I found (linked in an OCLC newsletter, as I recall) seems to think the study proves the Internet hasn’t diminished attention spans. That seems like a logical fallacy to me. I’ll be interested to speak with students in the fall to see how they feel about reading digital content and how engaged they are with what they read online. It’s an important, and very basic, question for academic librarians to ask as more and more of our materials are available digitally. Are our users engaged with the resources we’re providing?




Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

I have a raging poison ivy/oak/sumac rash at the moment, I’m not sure which & I’m not going back out there to inspect the woods behind our rock wall to find out. In the process of finding information about how to treat my affliction, I found out that people really don’t trust the internet as a reliable source of information. I was surprised, because when I worked as a college reference librarian I heard colleagues and professors lament that “kids today” believe everything they read online. (A related problem: teachers who assign kids’ homework with the rule, “no online sources.” Many libraries are adding more and more e-books to their collections, which leaves librarians explaining to parents, “It’s a book, it’s just online.”)

I’m thinking it’s a little more complicated than that because I had a series of conversations with friends, relatives, and total strangers from different generations in the last few days about poison ivy; specifically about whether it spreads and how to alleviate the discomfort. (FYI, it spreads systemically in your body once you’re exposed to the chemical in the leaves that causes the rash, but you can’t spread it yourself by scratching or contact with the rash; I’m still working on alleviating the discomfort). What I learned is that people are very mistrustful of any information online that doesn’t come from someone they know. 

As reference librarians we spend time teaching people how to look for accurate information online and how to tell if a website is trustworthy. I have come across plenty of patrons (usually not young people) who are a little too trusting of something they found online. But I never realized how many people don’t trust the web at all, even if the information is from a good source (Mayo Clinic’s website, for example) or if the information is essentially the same offline. But if people see something a friend posted, they seem to find it more reliable.

Have you come across this? How do you convince patrons they can trust an online source? And how about the touchy subject of social media not necessarily being reliable — at least no more reliable than cocktail party or break room chatting? Which is to say, sometimes it’s brilliant, accurate, and spot on advice and sometimes it’s, well, not. In fact, it’s like any information: you have to consider the source.

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.