Blinking in the Library

One of the things that I wanted another blog for was to have a place to record my reactions to books. Sometimes, it’ll be a quick reaction, other times a thought out reflection, maybe even a few pure reviews.

I’ve also decided that I need to read more. To anyone who knows me well, this is hilarious. I read whenever I get the chance and I devour books. The problem is that what I’ve been doing mostly is re-reading. Because I read fast, I never have enough books. So, from now on I plan to get–from the library, through intercampus or interlibrary loan, or from a bookstore, mostly in that order–whatever catches my eye. If I’m reading something interesting and they mention another book–check the library catalog. It sounds good anyway. Books I can’t get through the library will probably go onto a wishlist somewhere, rather than being immediately ordered from a bookstore, but at least they won’t disappear into that black hole of “when I get some time I’ll look into it.”

It’s appropriate, therefore, that I start this record with the book Blink: the power of thinking without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. That’s just what I intend to do with finding books–make a split second decision to order the book, at least through the library. I found a reference to it in Everything bad is good for you. Blink is all about how we make snap decisions, why they can be very good decisions, and how they go bad.

In the first chapter, Gladwell relates a story about a statue that all the standard tests thought was real, and  a growing list of experts thought was fake. The problem was that those experts couldn’t give more than vague, “It doesn’t look right,” sort of responses when asked why they thought it was fake. It was a split second impression that contradicted the chemical tests and the lawyer’ provenances. (It was eventually determined that it was fake.)

I thought, “That’s what I do!” I could never understand, not really understand, why everyone reports that people don’t look through the first couple of pages of search results. I routinely look through hundreds of results when I search for myself. In part I’m looking for patterns to let me narrow my search, but often I just skim through a dozen pages of search results, then go off to the next topic or database. What I’m doing is making a snap judgement on each result and either dismissing it or investigating further. When I do searches for people, I often find some “good” results in the big list, then refine the search to pull up only those results and closely related ones. But the second part is essentially for show, I’ve already found them. It’s also for instructive purposes, since it’s easier to learn to search properly with some good examples. But I don’t actually search that way.

We teach information literacy and resource evaluation, with check lists and rubrics, but none of that is conscious to me when I search. I’m sure I’m doing at least some of it, but it’s also more elaborate. I’m sure I’m looking at word patterns in titles for scholarly vs. popular treatments. Word associations to know if the search word is being used in one field or another.  Scans of URL’s looking for domains and other signs of reputable sources. But it doesn’t feel like that. Some links just look better than others. They feel better. And when I do click through, to an article or a web page, I may only spend a few seconds before discarding it. I have to watch it when I work with someone else, especially when I’m tired. I’ll skim through the first set of results and start scrolling down or going to the next page before they’ve finished examining the first title.

So Blink is reassuring to me. And cautionary. Gladwell talks about how our environment and our thinking can trip up our snap decisions. Priming, the tendency to make a decision based on something that you’ve just seen, rather than on the thing you are immediately looking at, is one. Biases generated by past experience is another. I know that I have a strong bias against misspellings. Show me a web site with misspellings and I will immediately downgrade my judgement of the “worth” of the page, even though I’m not a great speller myself and I know that everyone makes typos. I’m just used to reading well edited books. (A truly scary set of tests for unconscious biases is mentioned in the book, http://www.implicit.harvard.edu/ , the Implicit Association Test. Don’t take these unless you are willing to confront your unconscious biases. I mean it.)

Skimming and scanning are very important to me as an informational professional. I suspect that they are one method that I use for dealing with the huge flood of information that we have accessible to us these days. However, I have no idea how to teach these skills. Is it just pure practice? Did I develop these skills because I started searching when the search technologies were primitive and there was no way of narrowing searches beyond a certain limit? Do the recommendations of the IAT (you can forge an association between categories by exposing yourself to situations that link them) make sense here?

Well, that’s the first impression. I guess it’s the Blink impression and my immediate reaction to that response. I’m not really thinking about the book, but my reaction to the book. I’ll come back and look at the book again, and this post again, and see if I have anything to add. 

What is Connecting

I’m going to use this blog to reflect on the connections among information, people, knowledge, ideas, tools, and communities. As the subtitle says: collecting information, finding patterns, integrating ideas. It’ll be more personal than my professional blog, Frequently Answered Questions, but still More Than a Cat Diary. I’ll probably use it mostly for reflecting on issues that just don’t fit into the narrow mission of FAQ. And for the occasional picture of my cat!

I’m also going to be playing around with the template, so if you hate this one, don’t despair.