My No-Longer-Secret Shame

I need to tell you a shocking secret, but you must promise not to tell anyone. If you tell even one other person, it will ruin my professional reputation and call my credentials as a friend of culture and the written word into question.

Okay. Here goes.

I, Robert Benson, have never read Of Mice and Men.miceandmen

Shocking, right? I’m a college library director, and I’ve never even once read this short, accessible literary classic. My team at work found me out this week and are now questioning their life choices. How can they work on a library team led by someone who has never taken the time to experience a 100 page staple of American literature read by millions of American middle school students every single year? I have no answers.

It gets worse.

I also have never read Pride and Prejudice; The Diary of Anne Frank; Little Women; Wuthering Heights; The Picture of Dorian Gray; or The Old Man and the Sea.

I once started Moby Dick but thought it was boring and stopped.

Hard Times is the only Charles Dickens novel I have ever read.

I’ve never watched Gone with the Wind, Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I don’t particularly enjoy Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday recordings. I desperately love the music but the sound quality of those early recordings hurts my ears.

Too much? I know it’s painful, but there’s more you need to know.

Most rhyming poetry is willfully opaque and boring. Unless its not.

Emily Dickinson seems pretty sexy to me, but I can’t explain why.

I definitely enjoy William Blake’s poems best as decoration for his engravings.

I don’t get the big deal about Robert Frost.

When I read Shakespeare, I don’t feel like I completely understand what’s happening or even what the characters are saying until I can see it happening on the screen or stage.

You still with me? Are we still friends?

I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I know this is a lot to process.

In my defense, there’s a lot of culture to take in, and we keep making more of it.

I am 43 years old and have been actively reading a book every day of my life since I was five. My Goodreads profile says I have read 462 books, but that’s just since I started keeping track in 2008.

I have read a lot of great stuff, both classic and contemporary, but there’s so much greatness I cannot take it all in.

My “To Watch” list is a hot mess. I hope to live long enough to see Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 200+ other classic films that will make my life richer but one of my best friends loaned me the first three seasons of Game of Thrones on DVD over two years ago, and I still haven’t returned them. Sorry, not sorry.

There are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 52 weeks in a year. Movies last about 2 hours. You do the math. There’s a mathematical limit. I sleep, eat and work. I have a family. We do stuff together.

At this moment right now, I am listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Sarabande” from The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach. This gorgeous 6 minute and 36 second track is just one of 8706 songs in my iTunes library rated 4 stars or higher. It would take 25.6 days of continuous listening to hear all of those songs I love play just one time. I’m trying. I have a version of my playlist sorted by date last played and another which extracts only those songs I haven’t played in the past year. There are 621 songs on that list which would take 48 continuous hours to hear. I still buy music.

But I digress. I was telling you about how I haven’t read Of Mice and Men. Yet.

You and I live in a miraculous time amidst the staggering abundance of cultural riches. At any given moment, we can access visual, aural and written art created across most of recorded human history. It is, in fact, the absolute greatest time to be a person.

But our time is also one of scarcity. We have precisely as many hours in our day as Monet and Newton and Voltaire, yet we feel ourselves constantly time-starved. We pack our own lives with activity and distraction. We often feel the lack of time as if it is a thing that is being stolen from us, as if we are being robbed.

I am going to read Of Mice and Men and also Charles Dickens. Soon.

I am also going to keep watching movies and listening to music. I am going to read poetry and see brilliant (and not-so brilliant) productions of Shakespeare. I am going to keep writing things and and playing piano.

There is no end to it, no bottom to the list. I can’t take it all in. No one can. But we never stop trying because art is sustenance. Art feeds life. The books and poems and movies and songs and paintings and plays are not culture. What we do them is culture.

Abundance and scarcity. The absolute greatest time of all.

 

Email is Not My Job

Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to do my job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And yet, more and more often, I find myself spending most of my time writing, answering, filing and deleting emails. It has gotten absurd.

I’m not alone. The problem of email overload is so bad, my college is drafting policies to try and define who can email who and the rules for using email in the workplace. The policy won’t help. Email is a useful, but limited, communication tool. We overuse it and try to make our emails do things for us they were never intended to do.

The problem with email is that messages are wickedly easy to send and, on the receiving end, wickedly difficult to deal with. Handling my email inbox usually feels like hand to hand combat with somebody else’s to do list. Every email brings with it a decision. Do I reply? Do I delegate this? Does this person really need my response? Is the sender really a person anyway or is it just a semi-clever software program spewing invitations to review someone’s latest [fill in the blank]. Many messages get deleted. Others get flagged. Some get answered or delegated. Every email is a decision. It is exhausting.

Enough is enough. I’m building some new rules for myself regarding email. I want efficiency. I want clarity. I want control.

My brother manages manufacturing workflow processes. He treats his inbox like a project. Everything that comes in gets immediately color coded. Certain senders (his boss, his boss’s boss) are colored special colors to help them stand out. Every message is quickly reviewed for action type and given a color category using Outlook’s category options. One color for urgent. Another color for not urgent. Anything that doesn’t deserve a color is deleted.

I’ve been working with this idea for a week now. I already have my most important email senders pushed into a priority, VIP email folder. Messages from my boss, my staff and my related work teams get pushed to the VIP folder. Messages in this folder can be viewed as a group. They also display on my iPad as a special alert to help me keep track.

All incoming messages are quickly scanned for possible action. Easy things get answered or addressed right away. Most things aren’t easy and require a color. Red for urgent. Pink for important but not urgent. Green for waiting for an answer or more information. Purple for things to read.

My new rule: every message gets scanned and immediately answered, deleted or categorized. I then use Outlook category filters to view my urgent emails all together. This helps me prioritize my work for the day. After those are gone, I will view the important, but not urgent set. Some day, in theory, I will read the purple items labeled to read.

It isn’t a perfect system. I’m still not entirely in control of my inbox but, after a week of using categories and filters, I already find myself less stressed about the hemorrhaging inbox. I’m dealing with the things that need my attention most a little more quickly. At least, I think I am.

I still need to fine tune the system. Today, I added another step. I close my email software when I’m not actively using it. Today, I read email first thing in the morning, again mid-morning and then right before lunch. I opened email midafternoon and then once more before I left for the day. The rest of the time email stayed closed.

From time to time, one of my VIP senders showed an alert on my iPad. I glanced quickly over to determine if the message was urgent, knowing that truly urgent things always arrive via phone call or text message.

It felt good to close my email when I wasn’t actively using it. I felt more in control.

I have written about my personal struggles with email before. You may think I’m daft. You may think I’m making things too complicated. The truth is I’m just trying to feel more in control and capture that feeling that email is a tool I use rather than a tool than uses me.

You may be reading this and feeling upset because you’ve sent me an email or 5 and haven’t yet gotten a response. Try not to be upset. There’s a good chance your email to me has a pink cast, in which case I’ll get to it.

There is also, of course, a chance that your email(s) have been deleted. If that’s the case, you are going to need to decide how many emails you want to send me to try and get my attention. My new rules are still young so I’m not sure how they will play out. I am declaring a kind of war here. Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to help me do my job.

I need your help. What rules or processes do you use to manage your email? Comments most welcome.

Becoming well-informed

Yesterday’s post about information rituals missed the point. I was working with the idea of information rituals as intentional, useful information habits. Yesterday’s post was a screed written by a madman, crippled  by the compulsive need to stash web links in the virtual nooks and crannies of his web space in the misguided belief that there will someday be enough time to visit them all, watch them all, read them all and use them all. There won’t be enough time and there won’t be a point. Yesterday’s post was more about link hoarding than about information rituals.

Yesterday’s post failed to consider this: why bother? The goal of link catching, organizing and follow-up can’t be to visit them all. There is no point to that. The web is immense and growing on a scale far beyond the human mind. Before we can consider useful information habits, we need to consider the goal. What are we trying to accomplish?

You can’t learn everything. You can’t be interested in everything. If you are, you certainly can’t invest your attention equally in all directions.

Information rituals should help a person benefit from their information streams: Facebook, Twitters, blog feeds, social bookmarks, emails and so on. The benefit is gathering the raw materials needed to be well-informed.

Being well-informed means seeing an idea or event from many different directions. Being well-informed means having a sense of understanding about a thing, how that thing relates to my life and how that relationship changes over time. Being well-informed is about gathering resources that help you make good decisions. Being well-informed helps you set goals, plan actions and assess outcomes. Being well-informed helps you lend value to others who can benefit from your specialized knowledge and focus.

And so, before I can think about developing useful information rituals, I need to establish my purpose. What is it about which I wish to become well-informed? This, it seems, will determine the most suitable rituals to cultivate.

So here’s the list of things about which I am trying to stay well-informed. These are more than just recreational interests. These are events, themes or concepts about which I need to become and remain well-informed in order to accomplish my larger goals. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • writing: as an action and a process
  • libraries: why we need them, how they operate, what they do
  • leadership theory and practice
  • books: what is being published, how are those books being received, what is their impact
  • eBooks: emerging publication models and the business of eText,  how reading eBooks compares to reading print books, how to connect readers with eBooks through library collections
  • mobile technologies and their use in education
  • open education: models, platforms, possible goals/outcomes
  • educational technologies: how technology intersects usefully with teaching and learning
  • pedagogy and learning theory: how people learn, how we teach people to learn more effectively; how libraries contribute
  • information theory: what is information, how is it used, how do people seek, find and interact with information
  • changes in web technology
  • social media: how they create communities of interest and how to use them to deliver messages to audiences
  • Buddhism and mindful living
  • parenting
  • creativity and things that inspire people to accomplish useful goals
  • politics and political action
  • world news
  • local news

Ah. I begin to see the problem. This is a very broad list, and I know the list is incomplete. I am trying to wrap my mind around too much. I am becoming somewhat informed in a number of these areas but am not being purposeful enough in finding where these areas overlap. I am sipping from streams of information that pertain to all of this but not focusing intention on developing deep knowledge.

I need to pare down my daily information diet. I need to identify the most beneficial sources of information in these specific areas, find places where these overlap and pursue those channels with greater focus. This might mean dropping some blog feeds. This might mean reshaping my Twitter feeds. I need to raise the criteria I use to screen what sources I try to follow to increase the value of time spent with each.

I do realize that this thread of posts may seem crazy. What I am talking about here is cultivating a mindful approach to information overload. We all suffer. We can all benefit from new habits. I suspect in the future, the ability to quickly filter information, screen out background noise and act quickly on the highest quality information will be a basic requirement for survival.

The mind evolves to survive our circumstances. I believe we can take control of this process. In fact, I believe we have to take control of this process or we will get bewildered, blinded and lost. If we don’t find ways to cultivate useful information rituals, we will become more and more poorly informed in the most information rich time our species has yet seen.

Information Rituals

Update (11march2013) – This post misses the point. I consider this a first, misguided draft. I am still working with the idea of information rituals. Step one: figure out what information rituals need to accomplish.

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I need to develop new information rituals. My current habits are not working for me. I have three email accounts — one personal, one for work, and one Gmail for capturing data posted to web forms. All three have become link hives,   hundreds of emails with nothing but unvisited links to sites I need or want to visit.

My email situation, though tragic, is not uncommon. But then consider the other places I have stashed unvisited links:

  • Google Bookmarks
  • starred posts in Google Reader
  • favorited tweets
  • Evernote for articles that require some action
  • Instapaper for articles to read during downtime
  • ScoopIt for articles to share with others
  • PDFs scattered across iBooks, Adobe Reader for iPad, Blue Fire and Dropbox

This is a mess. I not in control. If unvisited weblinks were physical objects, you would be watching my tearful family on Hoarders begging me to let these links go and just live a simple, uncluttered kind of life. I cannot let them go. I need these links. These links have something for me, some small but essential insight.

The problem here is discipline. My information habits lack purpose and rigor. My information habits are thoughtless and unexamined. I need clarity. I need a streamlined system that makes sense, and then, I need to develop the rigor required to operate and protect the system.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I am kissed with a little bit of OCD. Some people wash incessantly. Some people drink or do drugs. Some people are compulsive about light switches. My manias are list-making and link catching.

I can’t stop catching interesting links. I am a librarian. I work on the web. I am online all day. I get interested in things. I share links. People share links with me. It is the nature of what I do.

I need a better system for organizing my link hoards into coherent clusters that can be dealt with, delegated or deleted.

I need new information rituals.

Something like this:

  • Only keep Google bookmarks that matter. If a link gets tagged read or explore, then read or explore that link. Delete the links that don’t matter.
  • Triage all interesting emailed links into one place. Maybe a folder inside one email account or a dedicated email account. Funnel all emailed links to that one place and prune that one place ruthlessly. Bookmark the links that matter. Delete all emails.
  • Do not favorite tweets or star items from your Google feed. Push them to the folder and deal with them when there’s time. Bookmark then delete.
  • Keep Evernote clean for links that require some follow-up or associate to a particular project, like this blog.
  • Read Instapaper articles daily.
  • Push all PDFs to iBooks because iBooks allows annotation and also allows organizing features on bookshelves. Adobe Reader and BlueFire  have no organizing features to prevent the tumble. Dropbox is crowded with other things.

There are the tenets of the faith. Here’s the ritual:

  • Read Facebook and Twitter in the morning, preferably via Flipboard. Push links as needed.
  • Read Google Feeds at lunch. Push links as needed.
  • Read ScoopIt in the late afternoon. Push links as needed.
  • Read Evernote before blogging in the evening. This is where the blogging ideas get saved.
  • Visit Google Bookmarks for new sites and to delete unneeded bookmarks.
  • Read Instapaper with evening leisure time.
  • Read PDFs as needed.

Fascinating. This is completely unsustainable and I sound like a complete lunatic.

Okay, you get the idea. I’m stopping now.

I need to think a bit more about the idea of information rituals, those habits of searching, finding, clicking and reading that get us through the day.

What are your information rituals? How well do they work for you?

The Problem with Librarians

You may noticed I have using the blog to work through some ideas about libraries, what libraries are for and what libraries need to do next. This whole series of post is not born from existential dread. Some of my colleagues across the profession are freaking out about the pace of change and the emerging service models that may be necessary to serve our patron-base well. I don’t feel that concern. I hope my recent posts don’t contribute a defensive tone to the conversation.

Libraries do not need to be defended. They do, however, need to be explained. This is the work librarians need to be doing. Librarians need to stop justifying the continued existence of our services and start finding ways to articulate what those services are about in ways that people actually understand.

Librarians are the problem. Many of us became librarians because we love to search. We had professional training that taught us how to search. We build every system and service around the idea of search and then, incredibly, when talking to our patrons we evangelize about the joys of search and forget that they are there for discovery.

I serve in a community college library. For the most part, my patrons are faculty and students. Most of my faculty don’t do research. It isn’t part of their professional program and it isn’t required for promotion. My faculty are there to teach. Most of my students have never done scholarly research, don’t know how to do scholarly research and will likely never have to do scholarly research in any professional capacity. Most courses don’t even require a research paper or project.

How strange then that, when I celebrate the value of their college library, I wax rhapsodic about the joys of research. I extoll the moral virtues of time spent prizing through the wealth of human knowledge using a panoply of tools and devices to find the absolute best sources for their particular need.

This is madness. Their needs, for the most part, are not particular. They don’t need to devote hours to exquisitely refined search strings and terms. They need to discover. They need to get curious. They need to explore.

Librarians worship the search process. We want to help our students focus and refine their search strategies. This may be madness too. Most of my students come to me with no clear sense of what their research project is about or why they are being asked to do the research. Asking them to find focus is a non-starter. We should spend more of our time helping them find connection to the work they are doing in class.

Students cannot meaningfully focus their research before they have connected to the purpose of that research. This is true of everyone. All professional or amateur researchers come to their search with a deep sense of connection. They are compelled by an urge to know or understand some specific thing.

Librarians are deeply connected to the experience of search. It is our professional joy. We need to stop forcing that joy onto others. They will never love it as much as we do. They shouldn’t need to. What we believe to be the joy of search is actually the joy of making connections. We should share that joy instead.

We live in a post-search world. Just a few years ago, a curious person needed to dig deep and develop complex search rituals to have their curiosity rewarded. That is no longer entirely true. Information now comes to us more than we go to it. Through news media, blog feeds, podcasts and automated search strings, we can bombard ourselves with highly-personalized streams of relevant, interesting information.

The trick is knowing what to do with that information. Students have a very hard time with this. They have a hard time connecting the literary analysis of “Young Goodman Brown” with their own lives. When asked to write about a major social issue, they struggle to decode the latest geopolitical buzzword while ignoring the question they actually care about, which is something like “why aren’t there more small businesses in my hometown”.

Librarians have the skill, knowledge and tools to help these students connect with their own learning but we must stop doing a few things first.

  • Stop worshiping search. Enjoy the process. Share that joy with others but don’t expect them to enjoy search as much as you do. Search is your fetish. People don’t need to share it.
  • Stop talking so much about research. It doesn’t mean what you think it means and it usually sounds like a painful obstacle to climb before discovery.
  • Stop organizing libraries and webpages around the tools of discovery. Normal people don’t know what to do with it. Organize those pages around the process of discovery. Make the tools available where they are needed. Don’t expect people to reach into a deep, dark toolbox and spend hours thinking up ways they can use each.
  • Stop using the word “database” so much. There has got to be a better word. If you figure out what that word is, let me know.
  • Promote curiosity. Our collections are fascinating. Make connections from those collections to real life.
  • Be specific. Don’t say that the library is a place to learn. Everybody gets that, but nobody really knows what that even means. Say instead, “the library is a place to learn about math or science or politics or health or…”
  • Don’t just say the library is a place to learn about x. Show them. Make connections visible.

Librarians needs to stop thinking and talking about libraries as primarily being places for information. The world is awash information. Our patrons are seeking relevance. That’s what libraries are really about. It is time to start talking about them that way.

What libraries are for. (take 3)

Last night, I posted my attempt to sort through a few ideas about the role college libraries play for students and faculty. I went to bed bothered and woke up bothered. That post was well-intended but missed the actual points. I went too far in some areas and not far enough in others. I created the wrong impression that most information is easily available online. This may or may not be true. What I did not say is that, increasingly, the best information (timely, reputable, accurate, quality-reviewed) is not available for free online. More and more often, the information and cultural content we expect to be free is locked up behind pay walls. You have to pay to access. Sometimes, you have to pay to discover. This is a problem libraries help solve.

Consider this post as third draft of an evolving essay on what libraries are about. The first two iterations are here and here.

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I serve as library director for a community college in Tennessee. The work is fun, challenging and, at present, a bit bewildering. Models of library service are quickly changing. The internet has matured and now underpins pretty much everything we do. The internet provides the plumbing for how we work, learn, communicate, socialize and entertain ourselves. Our daily lives are exponentially richer with information.

Information is a loaded term. What we call “information” is usually a mental short cut used to discuss a bunch of processes, experiences and feelings for which there is no good language. Information isn’t a thing. Information is a lot of things. Think books, articles, essays, stories, documentaries, data, code and conversation. It makes the head swim. All of these things and much more get packed together as information. This is where problems set in.

Librarians have been trained to believe that our primary job is to provide information. This is only true in a minimal sort of way. Librarians who still believe their primary function is to provide information are freaking out right now. Providing information is what Google does. Google does that much faster and much easier. Google still doesn’t always provide some kinds of information as well as library collections but that is often beside the point because faster and easier almost always trump better.

People are lazy. Don’t get upset. I’m not just talking about you. I include myself here. If I can find something quickly and easily that meets my need “well enough”, I don’t dig deeper. I stop with Wikipedia or the first 5 links on Google. Librarians who still believe we are competing with Google are at loose ends. The war is over. We lost. Come back home.

It turns out, we were never actually really at war. Librarians have adopted the tools of the information revolution and are using them in incredible ways. It is time to stop despairing and hand wringing. Librarians have never before had access to such powerful, efficient and effective tools. We can pick up these tools and use them to begin a library renaissance, but first we need to understand what it is we need libraries to do. Here a few suggestions:

  1. We need for the information that is available today to also be available tomorrow.
  2. We need to lower the cost barriers of information getting and sharing.
  3. We need to curate collections that create context so that resources are available in ways that speak to each other and contribute to a broader, more accurate understanding. This is done partly through our decisions about what we collect. Maybe more importantly, this is done through decisions about what we don’t collect.
  4. People seek relevance. Information now comes to us. We don’t often expect to have to go to information. The ease of getting “informed” tricks our minds into believing that all information is created equal. The problem is that information comes to us randomly and may or may not contribute anything useful. Lots of signals create lots of noise. Libraries can reduce the noise by selecting a few signals to spark good ideas.

This last point gets to what I want to say. I work with college students. Most of them have grown up in the world where the internet has always been available. Sometimes I get depressed because they don’t seem curious. This is baffling. We live in an unprecedented age of knowledge creation and sharing. As a species, we are using incredible information technologies to learn faster, share that learning and increase the human body of knowledge at an exponential pace. Why aren’t my students more curious?

I see two reasons. First, many are survivors of a drill-and-kill educational system that trained them to suppress their natural curiosity. Curiosity slows things down. Curiosity is the enemy of the highly structured lesson plan. They come to college stunted by a kind of intellectual PTSD. They are master gatherers of information but they choose the information they gather selectively according to one major critieria: “is this going to be on the test?” If yes, they capture the information in notes, review and regurgitate. If not, they omit and move on.

This isn’t really their fault. Like all traumatic stress survivors, they need counseling, perspective and time.

There is a second problem, and it effects all of us. We treat our information streams like an all you can eat buffet. I’ll take a little of this and little of that and make a crazy meal of sorts that may or may not nourish me properly. Our minds are stressed by the speed at which we are required to assimilate new information. We have trouble making time to find meaningful associations. We are ridiculously well-informed but often feel like our minds are out of our control. We stop putting things together. We stop having new ideas. We are overwhelmed. We are bored and restless and seek endless entertainment to distract ourselves from our ennui.

Libraries should promote and reward curiosity. This may be the most important contribution my library can offer my college. How do we do this? I’m still working through that. I need your ideas.

We need to think of the library less as a research paper tool shed and more as an intellectual supplement, something that amplifies the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom.

We have the tools. We can develop the expertise. It is definitely time to stop moaning about the lack of curiosity and engagement inside our students’ minds. The college library is not an antiquated artifact of pre-internet society. The college library, the real college library, might just now be getting born. A kind of mind laboratory where new ideas are made, tested, and improved. A safe haven that rewards curiosity and encourages deeper exploration.  A relevance factory where information is just raw material, not an end product, and where ideas get connected with experience. That is how relevance gets made. That is how learning happens.

Libraries are Relevance Machines

Note (11am on 23feb2013): I was frustrated with some of the ideas in this post and took another pass on this. See it here.

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I had a fascinating conversation with my teacher friends today about what libraries are for. More specifically, we talked about what they need their library to do for them.

I have written about this before, but today’s conversation placed things in a new light for me. Not so long ago, libraries were places for information. Libraries collected the best information, kept it organized and ready for use when needed. This was the information warehouse model. Libraries collected the best books and housed them in buildings organized by myriad, fetishized principles that made information discovery a pretty efficient endeavor, once a person understood how the systems worked.

The Internet changed all that. We no longer expect to have go someplace to discover information. Information comes to us. Lots of information, in fact. Floods of information. So much information that our world is a noisy, busy, sometimes terrifying place. For the most part, we don’t have to dig too hard to find basic facts, get data or discover opinions.

We have a new problem. Since most information seems so easy to get, it is difficult to compare multiple pieces of information and assign meaning or value to it. Put another way, now that information is so easy to get, all information appears equal. It is far more challenging to discern which information is likely to be most useful or relevant to a particular need. It is more difficult to take that information and create useful knowledge.

Here’s the part where I tell you that I work and teach in a community college library and that this gives me permission to overgeneralize about “kids these days”. Here goes. College students are still smart, but they aren’t curious. Many don’t naturally invest themselves in their own learning. They expect learning to be something that is given to them by a teacher, probably through a series of lectures with accompanying Powerpoint lecture notes. They do not ask questions. They prepare themselves for the project, paper or exam without ever really wondering why they are doing this. Many of these students grew up believing that curiosity was bad because it interfered with the transfer of content required to get them ready for the next standardized assessment.

They don’t see connections, and they are not alone. Many of us are drowning in the information we encounter as random, unrelated factoids or tidbits. Watch a newscast sometime, and then ask yourself, “What am I supposed to understand from this about the world?”

We need to encourage students to be curious. We need to connect them to their own learning. It seems to me that the library is a place that can reward curiosity and foster connection. We can do this by showcasing connections between abstract concepts and everyday life. We can do this by curating collections of books, articles and video to tell a story. We can do this by focusing less on the mechanics of information discovery tools and focusing more on helping people identify and solve problems that matter to them.

Libraries should continue to collect resources, objects and artifacts that best address information needs. Libraries should continue to preserve the integrity of the scholarly and cultural conversations for the benefit of generations to come. We should do these things and do them well. But we should be always mindful that we do these things as a way to gather the tools to meet our true obligation. Our real work is rewarding curiosity and helping people create their own connections.

Getting Comfortable with Opportunity Cost

There is a particular kind of anxiety that can come with being Constantly Connected. Natalie Houston describes it well in her Prof Hacker post “Are You Missing Out?” in which Houston explores the anguish du jour: Fear of Missing Out.

I get it.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, and Pinterest make us instantly aware of what our friends are doing right this moment. That’s kinda nice. The downside: being constantly aware of what my friend are doing becomes constant awareness of what I’m not doing. I’m not at the beach. I’m not at the concert. I’m not eating at the restaurant. More interesting than this petty jealousy is the resulting compulsion to share the trivia of my life so I can participate in the What I’m Doing machine.

Nothing wrong with this in doses. Unchecked, it can make a person neurotic.

Which brings me right around to something I’ve been wrestling with lately. With iPad, iPhone, iPod and social media, I have superhuman powers to communicate, participate and share with the entire world. Literally. I am more well-informed and better positioned to have real influence than ever before. Because of this reach, I am being stretched in more directions than ever before.

I can see for miles in every direction but can’t always seem to easily focus where my attention is most needed. Focus takes effort.

Focus, I think, will become the defining trait of personal and professional success in my years ahead. Time to start practicing the art of applied vision, truly seeing where I look. This is the principle of opportunity cost. Every accepted opportunity limits the ability to pursue another, different opportunity. Our reach is not infinite. I can’t do everything. Time to stop thinking so much about what I am going to do and start marking the harder, more rewarding choices about what I am going to intentionally miss out on.

Eradicate email!

So I’ve written a bit already about my personal war with email. Managing email happens to be my personal Achilles heel and is emblematic of the larger problems of information overload that challenge all of us.

Edudemic posted a helpful article about Chris Anderson’s very practical campaign to get email under control. The article quotes Anderson:

an email inbox has been aptly described as the to-do list that anyone in the world can add an item to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your working week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities.

Anderson’s image of email as the world’s open to-do list for me is pretty apt and gets right to the root of my problem with email. I can’t respond to it all, I can’t answer it all, and I can’t use it all. It piles in and there’s never any getting to the end of it. I have never witnessed Inbox Zero is my personal or professional life but know that, if I ever did, the relief would be short-lived. You have to sleep sometime.

I am prepared to declare war on email. If you are ready to join me, you may find Chris Anderson’s “Save Our Inboxes!” to be a useful manifesto to lay the battle lines. Take a look. Share it if you find it helpful. I am considering adding the link to my work email as a gift to my c0lleagues. Celebrate clarity. Attach attachments. Respect recipient’s time.

Did you like the Email Charter? Let me know. I need to know I’m not the only one ready for battle.

Does the iPhone kill creativity?

It feels good to be writing again. Earlier today, I was wondering why I ever stopped. The iPhone and iPad crossed my mind but I wasn’t quite sure how they related to my decreased creative impulse. I haven’t been lazy. Quite the opposite, I’ve been productivity obsessed. In the two years since I got my first iPhone and iPad, I’ve been busier, more productive and better informed that ever before.

In my small amount of free-time I have been Facebooking, tweeting, following RSS news feeds, setting up search builder alerts in library databases, blogging, and sharing links of interest to colleagues across the state. I have become ridiculously well-informed through the miracles of Twitter, Google Reader, Flipboard, Zite, Vodio and Instapaper. I’ve been gathering weblinks like a manic squirrel and stashing them in Evernote, Google Bookmarks, and various other digital hidey holes.

The trouble is, I haven’t been taking the time to process all of this information or wonder exactly what it is for.

The universe is often kind. I was pondering all of these things earlier today, wondering how they fit together and then I read Jay Fields’ LifeHacker post “Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity?”

Creativity requires downtime. Insights are created in the space between activities where seemingly unrelated events are casually examined and relationships are found. Fields, like me, loves his iPhone. The trouble is, the iPhone destroys downtime. The mind is hungry for information and the hand so easily reaches for the iPhone when standing in line, waiting for the bus, waiting for the kid to get dressed, whatever. The idea is that these moments between things used to be filled with free-ranging thoughts, which created the building blocks required to make new ideas. When the mind is always engaged in taking in new information, there is no time left to make anything happen with this information.

Fields writes:

I’m convinced that my iPhone was the root of my creativity issues. Life is full of ‘waiting time’ – waiting for the subway, waiting to see your doctor, waiting in the elevator, waiting in line at airport/grocery store/coffee shop, and waiting at the bar to meet your friends. Pre-iPhone I would spend this waiting time pondering anything that was troubling me. Now, I open Safari on my iPhone to see who is the latest injury on the FSU, or who’s tweeting about what (seems like it’s mostly sponsorship requests these days). I don’t spend that time thinking about anything, I spend that time reading – reading about things that have very little impact on my life, but seem to always more than fill my waiting time.

I’m not planning to surrender my iPhone, but I like Fields’ rather modest solution. He moved the attention-suckers to the second screen of his iPhone so that when he instinctively reached for the device, he had time to remind himself that he needs time to think. Fields also schedules “stare out the window time” into his day. Both of these are doable solutions.

I want to sustain habits that foster greater creativity. I still want to be ridiculously well-informed, but I need time to figure out how this information involves my life. I need time to do things with the stuff I learn.

Funny how the answers we need often arrive just when we need them. Or maybe, I’ve just slowed my mind down enough to create a relationship between two entirely unrelated events. Either way, I am feeling grateful.