One of the principal arguments that we present-day librarians make about ourselves is that in an age of massive and pervasive information overload, we are able to help library users cut through the dross and find what they truly need. We often discuss this in terms of time — specifically, reducing the time that patrons spend in finding useful sources. (In fact, “save the time of the user” is one of the five laws of library science, developed by S.R. Ranganathan, that all librarians learn.)
We also, with good reason, talk about quality — librarians’ ability to act as a filter for patrons who are confronted with millions of Web search results, along with anyone’s ability to publish anything, regardless of credibility. Every day, we help students develop search strategies and ask the right questions, and we provide platforms (database pages, catalogs, research guides) that attempt to direct them to high-quality information.
But as I listened recently to an NPR report by Manoush Zomorodi entitled “Get a Grip on Your Information Overload,” another significant framework for talking about our role in mitigating information overload occurred to me: that of stress, and the effects of information overload on the body and brain. One of the key points raised by the report is that overload causes physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and eye twitches, but even so, it’s nearly impossible to stop consuming information. The report also quotes a neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, who argues that so much information makes it difficult to discern what’s important, and that so much decision-making about all this information simply wears people down.
Although the report is talking mostly about everyday interactions with information and media, and not specifically about academic research, the implications for the latter seem clear. Students today are confronted with far more options for finding information than they had been in the past. And indeed, every librarian has stories of students who come to the desk clearly stressed — not just because they’ve had trouble finding things that relate to their research, but because they’ve done Web searches and then had no idea how to sift through the millions of results that turned up. We’ve also all seen the face of relief when students do a search in an academic database and suddenly are dealing with only dozens of options instead of thousands or millions — and that, lo and behold, many of these options are actually viable.
Particularly with the focus today on student physical and mental well-being, we perhaps ought to focus more attention on how librarians and their various strategies might contribute to this well-being. How much, one wonders, could it alleviate stress to discover that there are well-marked paths for finding information on an academic topic, not to mention people whose task is specifically to help them navigate these paths? It’s not just about being nice and friendly, although all our librarians here very much are. It’s also about reducing the need for so much processing of information, all the time. It’s about taking students to the heart of the matter, and teaching them how to get there — separating the signal from the noise, and feeling happier about being able to do it.
— Fred Folmer