A lesson I have learned from my careers in journalism and librarianship is that asking questions is a surprisingly simple and powerful means of gaining power to change our lives and our communities. This is true even with even the simplest of questions, such as asking for directions from locals while on vacation. Our newfound host can steer us to enjoyable destinations, while we get to enjoy a conversation and we save tons of time to enjoy our day. The alternative is being royally lost and stressed. It’s a lesson I regularly share with our students because it can be applied to anything in life. As a librarian I want students to ask me questions. I want to provide them the tools to do better in their classes and in their lives.
I believe this interaction is extremely important because the research required for our students’ educational journey is paradoxically both far easier and much harder than it has ever been. Research materials are more available than at any time in history, yet our students are absolutely overwhelmed with information. A search for “education” in our college’s Ebsco databases takes seconds, but returns in 13 million results. In 1997, journalist David Shenk coined this paradox “data smog.”
Shenk quoted philosopher Philip Novak, “Tens of thousands of words daily pulse through our beleaguered brains, accompanied by a massive amount of other auditory and visual stimuli. No wonder we feel burnt.” This was stated when the World Wide Web was still a toddler and iPhones were a decade away. Based on my daily interactions with our students, they see this data smog resembling the air pollution of 1940 Pittsburgh when they needed streetlights at 11 a.m. Their reactions to the smog vary widely from panic to acceptance. However, even those who accept the situation often solve the dilemma in their research by grabbing the first remotely appropriate articles they find.
Unfortunately, the data smog (and indeed all of technology) is growing much faster than we as a society have learned to deal with it. As adults, we want to act as role models for our younger generations, yet we often act foolishly with technology or react against it out of fear. My fear is not of technology or the data smog, but rather that we are leaving our students to discover their parallel virtual world on their own. I take this indictment personally and do everything I can to be part of the solution. I continually work to make our libraries’ online services, our student’s conduit to research, as clear and useful as possible and I try to improve my teaching with every student interaction and every class I teach. As I move forward, my goal is to find better ways of helping students not just cope, but take control of the information so they see some sunny days of accomplishment out of the data smog.
To be effective in this effort, I need more than the mad skills of a librarian — I need an attitude. In grad school I came upon the writing of philosopher Robert Greenleaf. His pioneering 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” struck a distinct chord with me and has given my work a common thread that I have tried to weave through my career. In that essay he wrote about the difference between people who want to be leaders to the end of exercising power and those who want to be servants and through their service to others become leaders:
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
That is my philosophy. I am a servant and I am happy to be one. My role as a librarian is directly connected to these questions and they are a good test as to whether I am fulfilling my calling.
Greenleaf, R. (1970). The servant as a leader. Indianapolis, IN: Greenleaf Center
Shenk, D. (1997, May). Data smog. MIT’s Technology Review. p. 18.
Image for illustration
The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2015, from http://research.archives.gov/description/548335