The power of the ‘Net

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it’s so important to figure out how to manage our digital lives more thoughtfully – and it’s been highlighted by two different job applications that came up recently (one for a school that’s very thoughtful about screen time, and another where I was talking in my cover letter about how I tie my love of the library and my love of technology together.)

Now, before we go any further, it’s probably obvious that I’m a passionate reader of books. I can count on the finger of both hands the number of times I’ve gone to sleep without reading for at least a few minutes. I read widely and deeply and broadly, in a rainbow of genres.

And I think, the same way, that there are lots of things that are part of our traditional images of libraries and learning that still matter – doing sustained reading, larger research projects, presentations, all those things. But I don’t think that’s enough.

When I’m talking about technology in either an educational or technology setting, I see books as one tool, but not the only one, and maybe not the major one. The larger question is something different: it’s not about simply how to use the tool, but about what the tool can and can’t do for us.

Which brings us to the Internet:

I’ve been online since 1994, when I first got to college. In that time, I’ve made friends, gotten frustrated, planned projects, taught classes (including teaching music theory in a pure-text environment, which was an interesting trick!), learned leadership skills, taught myself about any number of things. And that’s before we get into any of my actual professional or formal educational work – all those things are just the things I did on my own, self-directed, because they were interesting.

Every major news story in the past 15 years, I learned about online before I heard about it from TV or radio news. (There’s one exception: I learned about the 35W bridge collapse while sitting in the computer lab at grad school working on an assignment, as someone walked in having just heard it on the radio before the online stories were up – but I would have seen an online story through my usual haunts inside of five minutes.)

The Internet has kept me in touch with friends – that’s the thing everyone knows it’s good for, especially in our current Facebook era. But it’s more than that: it’s making new connections.

In a job hunt where I’m being very geographically flexible, I’ve found time and time again that if I say “Hey, looking at a job in [wherever]” someone I’m linked to through my personal online accounts will know useful things about the area, or is glad to put me in touch with someone who’s just as glad to share. Or they’ll know someone who graduated from there. Or something else that lets me dig more deeply into what’d be like to live and work in that place. (And it’s been true even for places where I would have sworn it’d be unlikely.)

As someone who did a major cross-country move in 1999, when these tools weren’t nearly so wide spread, I’m delighted by that every time.

And it’s in making other connections – running into someone in a discussion in a forum about our shared religion, and discovering we’ve got academic and professional interests in common. Learning about someone through their hobby, and finding out they write great and passionate and amazing blog posts about another topic that I happen to be helping someone with. And much more.

But it’s also in my professional life.

One of the stories I tell about the power of the Internet goes like this. In the fall of 2009, a student – someone I knew was a brillant, engaged, amazing student – came to me looking for some reference help.

She was taking AP European History, and she wanted to argue, for one of her papers, that you couldn’t consider an era truly ‘modern’ until it had consideration for the role of women and minorities in the culture. (Not that they’d solved the problems – but that they were part of general public conversation and political discourse.) She needed some sources to support her argument.

I looked at that, went “Hey, great topic.” and she and I sat down to do some digging on it. We tried a lot of different approaches, but we kept not finding the right thing. She had to go to class after about 20 minutes so I promised I’d keep working, and I did about another 25 minutes (and brainstormed with my assistant, and tried a few other things) before deciding I needed a different approach.

I posted a request to my personal journal, basically saying “I know various of you have a particular interest in women’s history and diversity studies – any ideas?” and with a few notes about what was accessible in a useful timeframe.

I posted it at 10:55. By 11:15, I had a response with the perfect essay to solve the source problem. (In an older but classic collection that the library owned, even!) Within another hour, I’d had a couple more suggestions, and another reference to the same title’s usefulness.

Now, I could have spent hours poking at that – and likely have found the book, but only after skimming through other titles that might be relevant first (and not having time to spend on other good and useful things that were good for other students, the library, etc.).

With the shared knowledge of my friends, it was a much faster process, and I could get back to a busy and highly engaged student at lunch, and say “Hey, here’s this great book, and here’s some other suggestions, and now that I’ve got those classic articles, here’s a couple more ideas of things to try in JSTOR and other databases.” She thought it was pretty awesome, too.

This is – again – one of those things we’re not really teaching, as technology education professionals.

It’s not just about the tools, and how to use them.

It’s about how we choose to use them, and what we can do in small pieces, now and going forward, that build those connections and create those interactions, so that ‘news’ is not a thing we listen to at 6pm, but a thing that’s flowing around us throughout the day, or that research is not just something we ask a librarian (though there are lots of times that’s a good thing to do) but where we’ve got connections to friends with a wide range of expertise and knowledge in many places.

That’s not easy. For one thing, learning how to sort out all those different sources of information, and figure out which ones are useful or reliable or meaningful gets pretty complicated. But at the same time, can we afford not to have these skills?

And perhaps most importantly, it’s about how we dance with the technology in our lives, in this time of ‘always on’ access. What happens when we turn off the phone, or take a break from the screen? What happens when we want time for focused work, or extended play? How do we recognise our own personal temptations, and find ways to manage them? There are lots of good conversations about these things out there already – but we can use more.

The more I think about this, the more I think that it’s probably the essential question schools need to answer in the next decade or so – and particularly, how to help students for whom various parts of this (creating healthy, balanced connections with others, having access to technology tools but not living under their control,  being comfortable with complexity and issues that don’t have easy answers, and much more) doesn’t come naturally.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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