By Alice Corble
2020 has been a year of many disruptions. Last month, on the eve of another national lockdown and a nail-biting general election in the US, there was a sense of teetering on yet another precipice. At such times of uncertainty, I reach compulsively for information, which nowadays is almost exclusively digital and online, readily available at the instant swipe of a finger or click of a mouse. It was during this moment, however, that I was barred from doing so, as my home broadband connection broke down and my mobile data and coverage rapidly depleted. Four days of disconnection from the online world of information and communication ensued, filled with much panic and frustration, as well as fruitlessly long calls to Virgin Media tech support in international call centres.
Before long I had little option but to embrace the disconnection and use it as an opportunity for a different kind of focus. I estimate that at least 90% of my job coordinating and facilitating reading lists and library teaching is not possible without an internet connection – probably closer to 100% in the present remote working and learning context. After spending some time tidying up my inbox and reading through old emails and digital documents, I turned away from my screen and picked up a book.
Maryanne Wolf’s Reader come home: the reading brain in a digital world (2018) explores the evolutionary science of reading and what it means to be literate in a digital and global age. As Wolf argues, “[t]here is both poetry and science at the heart of reading”, which her multidisciplinary expertise as a literary scholar, educator and neuroscientist can verify. The increasingly digitised, sped up and multiple channels and formats of the information we consume is establishing new norms for reading practices, whereby we skim content to pinpoint only the parts that interest us: a scattered or inattentive mode of comprehension epitomised in the extreme by the acronym tl; dr, ubiquitous on social media and instant messaging platforms. As Wolf puts it in a recent Guardian opinion piece, what goes missing in these new relationships to textual information “are deep reading processes which require a quality of attention increasingly at risk in a culture and on a medium in which constant distraction bifurcates our attention.”
Whilst my job does not generally require deep reading in the way that it does for our academic colleagues and students, I nonetheless find myself hampered by the splitting up of my concentration caused by the many digital distractions that have intensified as every aspect of my work has moved online, and countless channels and streams of digital information and communication compete for my attention.
Reading Wolf’s book inspired me to put pen to paper and develop a lesson plan on how students can develop academic writing skills through active reading strategies. I am also drawing together pandemic pedagogy tips and resources for students who may need help with concentration and digital wellbeing during these digitally dominated times. The Library is a crucial hub and safe space for students and researchers in need of spaces to read, to think and to access the tools and resources needed to support that reading and thinking.
Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of ensuring that these spaces (both inside and outside the library building) foster digital wellbeing. Jisc defines digital wellbeing as “the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical and emotional health.” As individuals we can learn how to change our awareness of this impact and change our digital practices by evaluating the positive and negative aspects of technologies on our wellbeing. As library professionals we can do this not only in consultation with our teams and line managers, but also through informing the students, teachers and researchers we provide services to, and modelling good practice in an era of ‘online overload’.
Jisc provide some helpful resources on digital wellbeing during lockdown from both the student and the staff perspectives, which I recommend reading and discussing. I am incorporating new strategies into my daily work practices such as scheduling time in my calendar where I can disconnect from online communication platforms to focus on concentrated work tasks such as teaching preparation, and including a digital wellbeing focus to my Wellness Action Plan.
The hiatus to my online modus operandi brought about by my broadband disconnection, although frustrating and disruptive in some senses, also allowed me time to reflect on the vitality of digital wellbeing and creating healthy spaces for attention and concentration. Returning to analogue forms of reading and writing with paper and ink was refreshing and re-energising.
As a library professional, information is my bread and butter. I am definitely an advocate of the riches of the online infosphere, especially since my work focuses on fostering skills for digital literacy and accessing online resources, yet I also recognise how important it is to take a step back and reflect on how we inform ourselves and one another. Information is not there simply to be digitally accessed, consumed or exchanged via a cacophony of Zoom meetings, emails and instant messages: it is also there to be contemplated, channelled and created both individually and through communities of practice.