When I’m not occupied with urgent matters (aka firefighting), my preoccupation is the future of libraries.
Here, this topic is known as “America’s Libraries for the 21st Century,” a formal OITP Program–though obviously this theme cuts across all of the office’s work. Of course, the digital revolution currently taking place challenges the services, content, physical organization, staffing, funding, and every other facet of libraries. Indeed, the investigation of these topics is addressed in recent OITP policy briefs: Fiber to the Library, Checking Out the Future, and There’s an App for That!
Some of our inquiry depends on seemingly direct lines of thought, such as the rise of high-speed broadband, mobile technology, or e-books, and the consequences for libraries and public policy. But there are also less obvious implications. I’ve been contemplating one of these implications for the past months–which is, well, “contemplation.” But reading Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, has re-energized my thinking about this topic.
The advent of widespread networking, digital content, and the Web is causing a shift towards a fundamentally different way of information access, which may be characterized as unpredictable, dynamic, abbreviated, and frenetic. Of course, this is not news to us folks in the library community, steeped in e-mails, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Web surfing, and so on. These new capabilities have great benefits and many of us couldn’t imagine living without them. Among other things, people can now integrate and link diverse people, places, and pieces of information in ways that could not have been even imagined before–and enable us to think in new ways–or, alternatively, to rewire our brains to compel us to think in new ways.
But there is a potential downside to this rewiring. Some–or many of us–have increasingly short attention spans and difficulty in concentrating on longer-term tasks such as reading a book (much less writing a book). This phenomenon resonates with my personal experience–indeed just trying to read Carr’s book took some effort–it isn’t conducive to reading a book when checking e-mail every 10 minutes… I can even get impatient with e-mails of multiple paragraphs.
And what of libraries? Contemplation is central to traditional library services and uses: Reading books, newspapers, and magazines; doing homework (offline); participating in storytelling hour; playing a board game; or daydreaming (uninterrupted by electronic gadgetry). How will future libraries support contemplative activity of this kind when the technology encourages the opposite? Or does it even matter?
Will contemplation become mostly the province of an elite few as it was centuries ago? Broad access to intellectual works to facilitate thinking beyond society’s elites is a recent phenomenon in historical terms, enabled by the widespread creation of public libraries in the 20th century–thanks again, Mr. Carnegie.
Might “contemplation” become the new digital divide? Can future libraries be shaped as a venue to promote contemplation? Should they? If so, who will become the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century?