Digital Fractures in Attention: The Splintered Librarian

By Elijah

Perhaps not entirely obvious, yet still no where near a controversial statement, librarians devote themselves to attention. The library is replete with it. Since childhood, its stacks imbued us with a sense of hushed tones and solemn contemplation, bodies hunched, minds deep in congress with personal gods. But the reality behind this impression runs as deep as the foundation. Without attention, no library would exist further than a massive hulk of unordered books in some forgotten cellar (if that, as even this compilation requires some attention).

Essentially, we, as librarians, deal in attention: by the attention we provide in the formation of collections, for the attention of the members and visitors who hope to connect to the information they require. Classification, organization, and preservation enable minds to access otherwise esoteric, dispersed information, and thus we provide a service, attending to collections so others may more freely attend to the content of their interest.

Libraries establish the source of societies extended attention span, and attention founds all human experience. To this latter effect, the psychologist William James remarks:

Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground – intelligible perspective, in a word. […] but without it the consciousness […] would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive (James).

Vanguards against the buzzing manifold, we channel the ever deepening ocean of information through artifacts of our epistemology, generalities and contexts, so that others should keep themselves afloat in the process of their own inquiry. Digital technology allows librarians the ability to disperse their attention to many more millions of items, but with this advanced reach comes many issues. Some problems involve digital archives, preservation, memory, and power. I, however, wish to deal with toll this new technological information age takes on our own attention spans and, by extension, our well-being.

First, consider Marcia J. Nauratil’s engaging The Alienated Librarian, an exposition of burnout in the library as the “proletarization of professional labor.” To explain, she focuses on the emergence of bureaucracy as an ultimate power source over librarian autonomy:

Bureaucratic discouragement of professionalism, with its components of suppressed autonomy, role strains, and proletarianization, is a potent inducer of work alienation. The bureaucratic structure of libraries has also fos­tered and enhanced the alienating effects of all the other developmental factors considered thus far (Nauratil 55).

Hierarchical, bureaucratic oversight from library, university, or government administration stymies regular employees’ self-determination. This structuralized oppression likens librarians to Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times:

Similar to the methods used to enact authority as seen in this clip, authoritarian measures legitimize bureaucracy in libraries. Some of these, as Nauratil lists, are deskilling; role strain, overload, and ambiguity; and intensification of the labor process (23-25).

But these factors of control form behind closed doors, occur perhaps unintentionally, and certainly hide under the guise of budget constraints and austerity measures. My questions: where do librarians feel depersonalization most immediately? What do we hear and do in place of the mechanical repetition in the world presented by Modern Times?

William James expounds on a familiar effect:

[…]the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction […] We all know this latter state, even in its extreme degree. Most people probably fall several times a day into a fit of something like this: The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time (James).

Here, James distinguishes distraction as the opposite of attention, an effect of contemporary life that we find intimately familiar.

As attention brokerage firms, libraries situate their workers right at the heart of the technological data swarm. One paper asks: “how is it possible to be a knowledgeable librarian in the twenty-first century? […] When constantly overwhelmed with information and distraction by its overabundance, it is difficult to focus or even know where to start (Dewan 101).” The burden of excellence in reference librarianship is at extreme odds with the very nature of the field in its current state. So, when we acknowledge that “people depend on librarians to navigate information that simply overwhelms them,” — which requires librarians to “subscribe to email alerts, listservs, RSS feeds […] in an effort to keep pace with today’s ever increasing body of knowledge(100),” — the childhood intuition of the quiet reverence of the library belies a furious deluge behind the reference desk.

To cope, librarians tend to multitask, sequentially drawn to and from sources, which splinters attention and stresses the addled mind (Levitin; Dewen 107). Librarians habitualize this constant repositioning of interest, and develop an attention deficit trait, ADT (108). The pathology of our “age of distraction:”

It is brought on by the demands on our time and attention that have exploded over the past two decades. As our minds fill with noise—feckless synaptic events signifying nothing—the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and thoroughly to anything (Hallowell).

Attention, the process that underpins our connection with the world, “[…] the very root of judgement, character, and will (James),” and the principle of a librarian’s craft, erodes in the cacophonous polyphony of “You Got Mail.” If anything removes us from our “species-being,” look no further than how many tabs you have opened in your browser.

However harsh I sound; I am no luddite. Technology has extended our attention out to the furthest galaxies and the smallest quantum; it gives the world stage to whom would otherwise tremble in silence. The internet has crumbled physical boundaries and allowed perspectives to promulgate. Ultimately, meaning can proliferate beyond all prior bounds. But this does not discount the deliriant effect on us, and knowledge laborers in specific.

Written in 1989, Nauratil’s book predates the expansion of the internet, with broadband service, smartphone devices, and wifi. Nevertheless, under these considerations, we can see that the advanced access to information disperses attention — the “opium of the masses.” Nauratil’s remedies for alienation and burnout require our recognition of bureaucratic authority, to take action against the power that would separate us further from our work. Yet, if librarians are kept busy, stressed, and disorientated, the reality of our alienation internalizes; we view ourselves as the problem, not the structural imbalances from which these issues spawn. Our attitude becomes, “I barely know what is right in the world, when everything seems to go in its own direction, and its own set of considerations. How can know what happens in administration? I am too tired to even look.”

Attention is our direction in the world, that is, to the world. When we focus, with a clear and unburdened mind, we should see the reality of the situation, if only through our own perspective. When our mind fails to acknowledge the world, as it is, then we should attend to others in more apt vantage points. Thus our own interest can expand intersubjectively. Technology and the internet enables effect, but also disables it. Knowing this dual nature is crucial.


Works Cited

Dewan, Pauline. “Can I Have Your Attention? Implications of the Research on Distractions and Multitasking for Reference Librarians.” The Reference Librarian 55, no. 2 (2014): 95-117.

Hallowell, Edward. “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Review, 01 Jan. 2005. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

James, William. “Classics in the History of Psychology.” James (1890) Chapter 11. Ed. Christopher D. Green. York University, Toronto, Ontario, Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Levitin, Daniel. “Daniel Levitin: “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload”” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989)

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