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Christina's LIS Rant
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
  Everything Bad, Gorman, Levy, Liu
Everything Bad, Gorman, Levy, Liu:  How we read electronic media

The new Current Cites (December 2005) (via e-mail) has a review by Leo Robert Klein of an article on reading in digital libraries (Liu, 2005) this connected to several other things I’m looking at right now.

The essence of the argument is that while the digitization of information has enabled powerful tools like hypertext, it has dramatically altered reading for the worse by fragmenting attention, discouraging deep reading, comprehension and retention.

This is what Gorman was complaining about (Gorman, 2005) (in part).

On the other hand, there is Every Thing Bad is Good For You (Johnson, 2005).  I only just started reading it so I can’t give a thorough review of his point of view or argument (in fact, there’s nothing in the cover bio about the author’s qualifications to write such a book and this *may* be important).  What I’ve read so far says that narrative in new media is much more complex, greater cognitive dexterity (my words, if they make sense) is required to interact with video games (trivializing the different if you’re just saying fine motor control), and to judge games/internet/media on book standards is wrong/unfair/inaccurate.

Levy’s article is a bit older, but carefully reviews the history of reading and attention.  He states that “in reading, the partiality of attention means both that the document itself is selectively attended to and that to which the document points is also only partially grasped. As a process that is linear in time, it is only capable of fixating on one small fragment at any one instant.” (Levy, 1997, 206).  He goes on to talk about a change in design of the New Yorker because readers moved from consuming each issue as a whole, from cover to cover, to only “dipping in.”  He talks about disaggregation of books into smaller and smaller chunks in the same way moving images on television have become “sound bites” (see my discussion of disaggregation of journals by APS and IOP).

He argues that “current work in digital library design and development is participating in a general societal trend toward shallower, more fragmented, and less concentrated reading” (Levy, 1997, 202).  Also that “while one might argue that hypertext is integrative because it permits information units to be gathered up and linked together, it is exactly the integration of fragments that it encourages. And at the same time, as larger units, such as journal articles and even books, are put into hypertextual form, the creation of links among their parts contributes to their further fragmentation or atomization.” (Levy, 1997, 208)

Liu’s new article is essentially a literature review of studies of reading in digital environments# (2005).  People do browse and scan more documents and look for keywords.  Also, more emphasis is placed on putting the main content above the fold or in the lead paragraph.  This has been true for a long time in newspapers, but it is being done in scientific literature.

These articles all report what the authors believe is happening without clear scientific evidence of why or if it’s good or not.  Anyone who took lots of standardized reading comprehension tests was told to read the questions first, then scan the document for answers and then move on – that’s the best way to get the most correct answers on the SAT and other tests.  So, we also do this when the time constraints are self- or world-imposed instead of just test-imposed and we continue to do it even after we’ve finished our last standardized test (the GRE, hopefully).  As I keep saying, and Levy also says, how we read is really based on context.  I think bloggers like everyone else sometimes read intensively and sometimes scan for facts.  In reality, librarians in public service should be *much* better at scanning for facts than the majority of the population – are we really expected to read that whole article from Physics Review Letters to see if it’s relevant to our customer?  Of course not!  We scan for keywords many, many times a day.

Final thoughts:  I want real scientific work on this area with valid, reproducible results.  Librarians are frequent and skilled keyword scanners, but should also be good intensive readers for scholarly, peer-reviewed articles in their own field once the article is identified to be of interest.


#nb:  I feel that there are some large problems with the methodology and presentation of results in this paper so will not refer to his results, but use his article as a literature review. 1) he doesn’t provide his survey 2) “sample of convenience” – not clear how participants were selected 3) shows *perceived* answers, not actual (IOW, he doesn’t measure the differential in time spent or any of the other questions, and he doesn’t do a critical incident method – he asks the participants to say what they think has changed over the past ten years… this doesn’t tell you what has changed, rather what they perceive is different – this could be impacted by media, participation in the study… 4) mixes in his ideas and what he’s read in the literature with results – his survey results do not support his statements.  For example, he states reasons the participants are spending more time reading online, but the survey asks no questions on this.  He is either stating the obvious (so not necessary), or saying more than the survey shows.


References
Gorman, M. (February 15, 2005). Revenge of the blog people. Library Journal, Retrieved 12/21/2005,
Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you : How today's popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.
Levy, D. M. (1997). I read the news today, oh boy: Reading and attention in digital libraries. DL '97: Proceedings of the second ACM international conference on digital libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, 202-211.
Liu, Z. (2005). Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712.
 
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This is my blog on library and information science. I'm into Sci/Tech libraries, special libraries, personal information management, sci/tech scholarly comms.... My name is Christina Pikas and I'm a librarian in a physics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering library. I'm also a doctoral student at Maryland. Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or CLIS. You may reach me via e-mail at cpikas {at} gmail {dot} com.

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