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How much is too much? Embracing “information overload”

How many of you have made a New Year’s resolution to “keep up with [insert topic of choice] more”? Anyone feel guilty when they see their Google reader has 1,064 new unread items? Cry inwardly at the thought of drowning in the information tsunami, the fire hose of knowledge, the flood of media, the sea of despair?! (Yep that’s a lot of water metaphors…) According to Miriam Levin, (2000) that’s due to the fact that large bodies of water maintain the aura of “awesome, untamed power and impenetrable mystery”  and of course, the implicit dangers of drowning and destruction. That’s a pretty powerful message, and one that we librarians probably worry more about than most people (isn’t my job to be good at managing all this information?!) This column will be all about “information overload” and some tips to start managing this additional stress in our lives.

Firstly, the concept of “information overload” is a tough one. As Clay Shirky and others have explained, people have always complained about information overload. That’s one of the reasons that librarianship was so necessary- our classification systems and collection development specialists, among others, helped people understand the world by filtering, ordering and reducing the knowledge to a beautiful, ordered whole. (Weinberger, 2012) So although there’s always been too much information for any one person to read or digest in their lifetime, humans designed systems that could prevent material being published, or shelved- controls for the printed flow of information.

However, with the explosion of the internet and its low barriers of participation, our traditional systems could not keep up with the torrent of information. Furthermore, as the field of critical information studies has shown us, these systems of strict editorial or library control meant that many ideas were excluded from this process according to political, social or economic rules of the day. So we’re stuck with two conundrums- exabytes of information and a broken system of filtering. No wonder those water metaphors are so descriptive.

So what can you do?! Firstly, stop worrying that you’re falling behind. Several great books have been written recently about how the concept of knowledge is changing around us, and I believe there is much more to be written. We’re in a state of flux, and new technologies are engendering massive social change. As information specialists, we’re never going to go back to having that control over the world of knowledge- so you need to relax and start getting excited about these exciting new possibilities of the information age.

Secondly, practise information meditation. Howard Rheingold (2012) has written extensively on “info-tention” and how we need to be more mindful about our attention and information consumption. He believes a lot of our information overload stress comes from poor attention literacy- getting distracted, forgetting to breathe when you check email, failing to pay attention to the humans in our lives and lack of focus on our goals. He advocates scheduling a specific amount of time for professional development every day (even just 20 minutes) and meditating on our information use (understanding goals, intentions and reflecting on how you deploy your attention)

Lastly, content curation or using the power of your friends as filters can also be a successful strategy. Facebook’s “Like” button is a good example of using your friends to filter out the useful information, as is Amazon’s recommendation system. Programs such as Scoop-it and Diigo allow you to subscribe to curated articles, links and information on a topic- you can see what other people have recommended as useful in your area of interest. For example, I am interested in embedded librarianship, but rather than go crazy trying to scour the web for updates, I subscribe to a couple of curated content streams on this topic through Scoop-it. Technologies such as Google Reader, Twitter, Google Alerts can definitely help manage or streamline information, but human contacts are still your most valuable tool. By focusing on building (and tweaking) your personal learning network of experts, or groups of people, their blogs or their curated content, you’re creating a valuable filter that will help cut through the flotsam and jetsam.

Information “overload” is a feature of our time, but by being mindful of our habits and the changing information landscapes it is possible to feel less overwhelmed. And geeky old me even thinks it’s kind of exciting as we consider the role that information literacy and librarians can play in our networked future. Water may be uncharted and uncontrolled- but it is also a symbol of life, renewal and reflection- inspiring metaphors for the information age.

Alison Hicks: University of Colorado, Boulder | alison.hicks [at] colorado.edu

Great books on the topic

Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn. New York: Viking.

Levin, M. R. (2000). Cultures of control. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

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