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.

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.

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.


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.

Swimming in Media

Today I switched from limited basic cable TV to satellite TV. I went from having 13 channels I never watched to more than 140, of which I will probably mostly watch 13.

I still carry Netflix streaming service as well as the DVD by mail.

I have 17,111 songs in my iTunes library. I could listen to these songs continuously for 50 days straight without repeating once. I currently carry 3492 of these songs with me on my iPod. I have another 50 CDs to rip. I have accounts with Pandora, and Spotify. I hope to get iTunes gift cards for Christmas so I can buy more music.

I have 325 apps on my iPad and 317 apps on my iPhone.  I downloaded 4 of these today and side-listed another 5 for possible future purchase.

I follow 19 different podcasts with 120 unlistened episodes.

I follow 147 blogs via Google Reader, FeedlerRSS and Flipboard. This does not include the articles I find from Twitter, Facebook and Zite.

There are 5 books stacked up on my Read This Next shelf along with 13 DVDs to watch. This does not include the dozen or so phantom eBooks sitting on my Kindle, Nook app and other readers.

At some point, this all seems a bit excessive. My experience is not typical. I know lots of people with more TV channels, multiple streaming services, more books, more DVDs and hugely larger iTunes libraries. This is more media than a person can consume in an entire lifetime and still it rolls in and I accept it gratefully.

I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death a few months ago and worry sometimes that he is right to fret about our current trajectory. Maybe the surfeit of media represents an insatiable urge to be entertained and distracted. Maybe the lure of all this stuff is rotting our brains and diminishing our powers of focus and sustained seriousness. Maybe the inevitable outcome is a lethal level of amusement.

There is, I think, another possibility. Maybe this stuff makes us more powerful.

Our minds are made to process information and make new information. Our minds crave information and constantly seek input to synthesize new ways of understanding ourselves and our environment. Humans have never lived in a time so filled with sources of input. Our information reach is enormous and our powers of synthesis continue to grow. We were an oral culture, then a textual culture and then a visual culture. Our urge for story underlies all of these cultural ages. We need story. We crave story. We constantly create story and share with everyone who will listen.

Now our culture is oral and textual and visual and tactile. The sensory inputs are vast and our appetite for story expands to meet the opportunity of new technologies. We are awash in media, at times practically drowning in it and yet we find it is not enough. We are fed and we feed in turn. We take the raw materials of the TV shows, music, podcasts, blogs, books and apps and turn them into new thoughts, new perceptions, stories that help shape the way we understand our world. We will have to be open to new ideas about story and what story looks like. We will have to be open to a generous understand of what creativity looks like and recognize that all people are creative because being creative is an inherently human trait.

I am losing the sense of this post and see that I need more time to work through this idea. Case in point, of course. That is exactly what this blog is for — a place where I can work through my ideas aloud and hopefully get those ideas improved with the ideas and insights of others.

My question: Does the media deluge portend a sickness in our cultural soul, or are these the first manifest artifacts of a profound increase in our capacity to tell and share story?

Comments very welcome.



Standing in the stream

People don’t “surf the web” anymore. Or, if they do, they don’t tell me about it.

I’m glad. I always hated the expression. The web browsing as surfing metaphor never rang true for me. As if clicking from link to link to link was a challenging, exhilarating experience that required skill, focus and a measure of bravery.

I always thought of web browsing more like jungle vine swinging. Reaching frantically from branch to branch, trying to get someplace you can’t really see and hoping all the while you can somehow quit crashing into trees.

But this post isn’t about the metaphor of web browsing. I just want you to know I don’t do much of it. I don’t have the patience required or the tolerance for tedium.

That’s not to say that I don’t spend a great deal of my time online — reading, gleaning, gathering. Take a look at my Google Bookmarks account and you’ll see a digital hoarder at work. A magpie of hypertext.

I just don’t get my web content by running around on the web and trusting my clicks to take me anywhere useful. I prefer that my content come to me.

I read a library blog post several years ago (was it FreeRangeLibrarian?) in which the writer described a future wherein information comes to people rather people going to their information. I understand what she means.

Like I said, I’ve never been big on Googling a topic and then browsing links to see what’s there. For a short while, I tried StumbleUpon as a discovery engine but found the result pretty much the same, random hits about diverse topics without a single common thread for context except that they were “about” a general interest of mine — writing, history, Beatles, Buddhism, technology. This is a maddening mashup of sites that add little value to my life.

So there’s the crux. I need my information to add value to my life in some small way. My information needs to inform or enlighten or, at the least, entertain. If it doesn’t, I’m bored.

So, I don’t often go out in search of news or information. I let news and information come to me. Like a bear standing in a stream catching fish.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Facebook: I use Facebook mostly to read articles or watch videos posted by friends who share common interests. I’m not a great Facebook friend. I often find myself asking Michelle, “Does so and so have kids?” only to find that my good friend so and so posted every pregnant moment for the past 9 months and then delivered triplets. How did I miss that? Friendship fail! I missed it because I was more interested in the articles.
  • Twitter: I follow 84 people and am followed by 36. I’m not prolific. I catch interesting links from time to time. My favorite use is during a conference or other event, monitoring a hashtag to have conversations with many people in a “happening”. That’s fun. Like having a private, telepathic conversation. A layer of conversation at a pitch only I and a few others can hear.
  • Google Reader: I follow 92 blogs. Most are about librarianship, educational technology and eText. RSS is the best (and only) way for me to keep up with my favorite thinkers on a particular topic. I am very rarely caught up. Right now, I have 946 unread stories. I’m not sure there’s a prize for skimming/reading them all but it feels like I should for some reason. This was a real burden until I started using the FeeddlerRSS app for iPad. It has been a great way to read my feeds since each post takes a screen and you can move through posts by swipping.
  • Flipboard: So, I mentioned that I feel bad about not being a better Facebook friend. It isn’t that I don’t care about my people. I just don’t want to spend a lot of time visiting each and every profile to see what’s new. The new FB redesign has helped a little but I still really only see the updates from about 20 friends. That’s where Flipboard comes in. Flipboard takes my FB feed and reassembles it as a magazine of images and captions on pages that can be swiped. Very efficient. I see pictures and posts from people I care about but don’t always think to check up on. I like an update or comment on a post and sudden that person is back in my regular FB stream. I’m a good friend, after all. Nice save, Flip Board!
  • Zite: This is my favorite iPad app of the past 3 months. Zite uses my Google Reader, Delicious and Twitter feeds to assemble a customized magazine of articles predicted to be of interest to me. I can like or dislike a specific article to provide feedback and can indicate specific elements of interest within a story to see more like it. Here’s the thing about Zite: it knows me really well. Nearly all of the articles presented are interesting to me and there is very little duplication of articles discovered through FB, Twitter or my RSS feeds. Automated information concierge. Brilliant!

These 5 sites/apps take up pretty much all of the time I spend online. In other words, I pretty much only ever really go to 5 sites on the Web. For me, they are very sticky and very helpful. They pull together streams of content into a single river. Several times a day, I wade out into the river to see what’s there. Actually, that’s not true. With my iPhone, iPad and Chrome Twitter extension, I am pretty much always standing in the stream.

I don’t mind. It is no effort. I spend a great deal more of my time reading and thinking about stuff than filtering and deciphering.

Not sure if anyone out there is still “surfing”. If you are, I hope you are having fun and don’t mind so much that constant feeling like you are always just about to drown.