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Library is Dead. Long Live the Library... continued

Is Our Attention Span Shrinking?

18467 CoverThe belief was that all this technology would enable students to be better scholars than ever. They could access information more quickly, place a range of opinions on screen to be viewed at a glance, and instantly browse documents that scholars before them may have had to travel to look through. So are students better than ever? "I'm skeptical," says Rubin. In fact, he and many professors believe students' (and others') research may actually be less informed and more superficial than ever.

Understandably, one of the biggest concerns is that this new, surf-able medium may create non-readers with gnat-like attention spans. Professors stand on one side of the divide, holding that students only want bites of information and clickable answers. Internet professionals, on the other hand, maintain that the Internet has no impact on off-screen reading. They maintain that scanning is a Web-only behavior.

"I know hundreds of people who scan the Internet for seconds at a time, but can then become immersed for hours in a Victorian novel," says Christine Gannon-Brodeur '89, CEO of Socket Media, a Los Angeles-based agency that provides branding and media-services to high-tech companies.

People flit around the Internet because it's designed to make us do that, says Ben Jones '96, director of Web design and production in the Boston office of About.com. "The Web is fantastic for short things. It's very visual," he says. "People don't like huge bodies of text on the Internet; they don't like to scroll through documents." Jones suspects people use the Web for initial research, but then pull real books and documents off real shelves for serious study, or at least print or download relevant documents from the Web to pore over later.

However, the virtual avalanche of information resulting from an electronic search may be a bigger problem than the Web's sound-bite nature. "What has also shortened," maintains Gannon-Brodeur, "is our patience for the information-gathering process." This may cause people to quit the process too early, simply taking the first two or three things they get because they've already invested a lot of time in finding them.

More troubling, the Internet may lull us into a dangerously false sense of completeness. Users may believe that the two or three things that surface with a Web search are all that's available, says Ray English, the College's director of libraries. English cited one College course in which students are asked to find out what they can about the hazardous environmental effects of a certain chemical compound. About 75 percent of students search the Internet, get lost, and don't find too much information. Some will search the library's catalog and find something. Some may find a library database there that deals with chemistry and the environment. "An even smaller number," he says, "would learn that there's a printed encyclopedia or handbook in the library that would solve the problem just like that."

Even Gannon-Brodeur, who has taken numerous Internet companies from start-up through IPO, merger, or acquisition, believes it's often worthwhile to sign off the Internet. "There is an advantage to a slower research process, even using handwritten notes, which allows students to absorb information more fully," she says. "As a side benefit, it avoids that deadly, cut-and-paste technique."


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