Shelf Life: Information Overload

Lately, discussions of reading and literacy tend to devolve into polarized positions and alarmist rhetoric. On one side, fogey-nostalgist-book-loving types argue that the web is bad for reading, dumbing us down, destroying our attention spans, distracting us from classic texts. On the other, hip young techies excitedly point to the good things about digital reading, positing text-message novels and participatory media as new forms of storytelling with lower barriers to entry. This tired debate, which pits print against screen in the ultimate battle over how we read, is perhaps best summed up by the catchy headlines on last year’s New York Times talker “Online, R U Really Reading?” (July 17, 2008) and the Atlantic‘s July-August 2008 cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

All of this fretting over the death of reading might sound more genuine if it wasn’t usually articulated by and for people who’ve staked their lives and careers on traditional media models–authors, academics, journalists, publishers, and the like. More importantly, it’s often beside the point. The debate over how we read, perpetuated largely by media insiders, is starting to seem like little more than a distraction from the real problem: We have access to more information than ever, yet we do not know what to do with it. We are desperately information-illiterate.

The Internet has added a seemingly limitless supply of stuff to an information landscape already overcrowded with books, magazines, news reports, radio shows, and cable channels. As greater numbers of people avail themselves of online resources, however, few understand how it all works and what it all means. In 2009 literacy isn’t about finishing a book or slogging through 12 web pages to get to the end of an article. It is about knowing what to do with information, how to find the good stuff, how to assess sources. What matters is not that we are readers, but that we are critical readers.

Young people, a.k.a. “digital natives” or millennials, are endlessly singled out by media trend-watchers and “kids today” tongue-cluckers as being universally obsessed with social networking and text messaging. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, blows up this presumption in a strongly worded essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 19, 2008): “Talk of a ‘digital generation’ or people who are ‘born digital’ willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. . . . The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling.”

Even for young people who grow up with gadgets, knowing how to upload videos or maintain a blog doesn’t translate to information literacy. “Of course [college students] use Google,” Vaidhyanathan writes, “but not very well–just like my 75-year-old father.”

Using search engines and databases fluently, and knowing how to find, filter, and assess accurate information, are skills that must be taught, by a parent, teacher, friend, or librarian. “This generation may surf the Net, but that does not mean that they think about how, why, and what they are doing,” write media studies teachers Barry Duncan and Carol Arcus for the Toronto-based magazine Education Forum (Winter 2009).

Take search engines. They can be powerful research tools–or they can drive you straight to the sites that are most aggressive and adept at playing the search engine optimization game. A Google search for “nuclear energy” won’t give you a well-rounded group of sources that are pro, con, and neutral–it will return a Wikipedia page at #1; the slick, “clean energy” home page of a nuclear industry lobbying firm at #2; and a cheesy-looking U.S. Department of Energy informational site for kids at #3. You have to get past three or four pages of results in order to get a taste of the surging debate that swirls around this topic. Information literacy is a liberal arts graduation requirement at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, which makes the school a rarity, says Thomas Eland, coordinator of its information studies program.

“These students are really bright people, and when you push them to critically analyze the sources, they just don’t know,” Eland explains. “It’s amazing how much people just take in, and really don’t have the tools to critically unpack it, to understand the structures of media production and whose interests are being promoted. . . . It tells me a lot about why the public can be manipulated at so many different levels by advertisers and politicians.”

Even champions of independent media tend to forget that the way we find information online is governed by private companies, not benevolent librarian types who want to unite us with the precise, accurate data we seek.

“We have no control over how search engines inform us,” cautions Harry Lewis, a professor of computer science at Harvard, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 16, 2009). “Google’s business is to supply the information that most people want, most of the time. How the company decides whether a particular result is No. 1 or No. 100,000 is part of Google’s secret recipe. . . . It is hard to think of anything else that we depend on so heavily yet know so little about.”

Eland believes that media literacy should be a high school requirement, which seems like a no-brainer–10 or 20 years ago, even. For now, it seems that burden is being shouldered by school librarians, which would be a more promising scenario if they weren’t often among the first heads on districts’ budgetary chopping blocks.

For the out-of-school, significant information literacy can be gleaned from public librarians, who are info-literate by trade. Yes, even in this digital age–especially in this digital age–librarians are often the best place to start. They’re at reference desks and Radical Reference (, on instant messenger and telephone, behind brightly colored “Ask a Librarian!” buttons on library websites. They’ll help you cut through the clutter and send you back into the world with a few literacy skills you didn’t even know you needed.

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