Exactly 30 years ago today, a great disaster nearly overwhelmed me. I was at the time a postgraduate student in Cambridge University, working on my PhD. I had agreed to deliver a paper at a conference scheduled to take place there in mid-January; when I accepted this invitation, I had calculated that I would have some time over the Christmas break (while allowing for a few days off for the actual Christmas celebrations) to do my background work, read relevant articles and books, and do a first draft. So on December 20th I was ready to make a start. Or actually no, I wasn’t: because the library which had all of the materials I wanted closed that day, not to re-open until January 4th – which was far too late for the purposes of working on my paper. I remember having a sudden panic attack, as I could not see how I was going to be able to do the work in these circumstances. And so for the next two weeks or so I was a bundle of nerves, wondering whether I would be able to prepare a good paper for this prestigious event, my first ever conference presentation.
In the end I was fine, and while I had to forego sleep for a few nights before the conference, the re-opened library provided me with my materials I needed and my paper, even if I say so myself, was not at all bad. But what I have just described would be hard to understand for anyone in the same position today. Yes, a closed library is an inconvenience, but not a crisis. Instead, they would now be able to settle down at their computer and access pretty much everything they would need online, day or night, Christmas Day or any other day of the year.
Or is it that simple? Might it be said that there is now simply too much online information available to today’s researchers? And more significantly, is it becoming impossible to distinguish easily between genuine scholarship and online rubbish? And even if you can securely identify the gems, are there not just too many of them ‘out there’ to enable a worthwhile assessment of which ones are most relevant or best suited to the immediate project?
In the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University argues that the information mountain available on the internet does not need to be a serious problem. Referring to one of her students, who had confided that she experienced ‘intellectual paralysis when confronted by the information choices’, Professor Brabazon concluded:
‘If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.’
Is that really the right advice? I cannot help feeling that the learning experience needs to be more emancipated than that. What Professor Brabazon appears to me to be suggesting is that you can overcome the fear of information overload by being methodical and taking instructions from your teachers. But the whole point of independent learning is to be able to find your own way to reliable data and analysis that is available to you and to use that in an innovative way. Having a routine framework and instructions handed down by your elders and betters does not seem to me to be the way to do this.
But then again, the academy has been through the concept of information explosion before. Back in the Middle Ages Professor Brabazon’s student would not have been struggling with information overload, she would have been struggling to come up with anything reliable or even just anything at all. The nearest monastery library would probably have provided the best and maybe only source. Then came the printing press, and suddenly there were books and pamphlets on absolutely anything, and almost immediately voices emerged saying it was all just unreliable stuff, and if a monk didn’t have to write it by hand on pigskin and add some beautiful illustrations it really couldn’t be worth anything. But the scholarly community quickly discovered how to handle the new information volume and in fact use it to enormous effect; and we are beginning to do the same with the internet.
I remember that when I was at school, another pupil once expressed a concern to a teacher that there were too many items for reading included in a homework assignment and that he didn’t know where to start. ‘Sharpen your pencils and sit up straight, read my instructions and then have a go’ was the rather opaque and (I think) utterly useless reply. So let us not suggest to students that the universality of information requires a methodical application of your instructor’s rules. Yes, they must acquire and be familiar with information sifting tools, including Google; but they must also be willing to pursue less obvious paths and to try that which no-one is recommending just then. Learning must be something of an adventure, as well as the application of a method.
In fact, the only thing to fear is that, on December 20th, your library may close and a new virus will shut down the internet, just 14 days before you have to deliver your paper. Everything else is a piece of cake.