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Librarians, Technology, Brain Development: Reflecting on SEPLA’s Annual Conference

December 18, 2012

On December 14, I attended the Southeast Pennsylvania Library Association’s (SEPLA) Conference and Annual Meeting, which was hosted by the Upper Merion Township Public Library. The conference featured Dr. David Walsh and his presentation The Impact and Promise of Technology in the 21st Century: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship. Although the focus of the presentation was somewhat different than I expected, it proved to be incredibly informative and captivating, and it impressed upon me even more the responsibility we as librarians have as information guides in a digital society.

After reading the brochure and registering for the conference, I knew we would discuss how people (children, adolescents, and young adults) learn and how technology impacts that; however, I thought this would focus more on teaching strategies and how we can integrate technology into information literacy, or even on how technology changes how we teach, and we would also discuss the pros and cons of technology such as privacy. I had no idea we would spend the first half of the session talking about brain development. However this was necessary background to understand how attention spans work and how our memory functions. It also provided the background necessary to understand why people behave the way they do at different stages of brain development, and how this brain development, which is not complete until the age of 25, impacts the use of technology.

As librarians, we are no stranger to the “promises and rewards” of technology that Dr. Walsh discussed. We know this allows us to access information, collaborate and, among other things, to network in ways never before possible. We know this can be very positive. We also know that privacy issues are important, that multi-tasking is not always the best thing, and that technology can impact social skills. What we aren’t always aware of is how brain development makes people in our libraries more susceptible to engage in behaviors that invade their privacy or that put them in harm’s way. We also aren’t always aware of the fact that, as Dr. Walsh explains, technology “is a natural match for the seeking circuits of the brain.”

These seeking circuits, or the seeking brain, is essentially what we want as opposed to what we need, it fulfills our curiosity. Think about how a simple question or a desire to look at a YouTube video can lead to more and more searching or more and more viewing. It’s an adventure for our brains. And this adventure fulfills the values society emphasizes which, according to Dr. Walsh, are “more, fast, easy, fun.” Technology can make everything “more, fast, easy, and fun.” It’s instant gratification.

This concept of instant gratification can be taken down many different avenues. To examine it from a library perspective, data mining was discussed. I teach an online library research course at my local community college, and we have a lesson on privacy. Many people are surprised to learn about the concept of data mining, and how their privacy diminishes even if we never dream of using a social networking site. As I discuss with my students and as Dr. Walsh discussed, data mining actually shapes our searching experience. A Google search might turn up results of places that are close to me geographically, advertisements that pop up on sites are tailored to me, companies that have my information may offer me different deals or prices on items. In effect, data mining improves this instant gratification by tailoring your online experience to your personal preferences, allowing you to live in an information bubble.

We librarians know that people often seek the easy, fast answers, and that’s why we must teach people to evaluate the credibility of our sources. Dr. Walsh stressed this point as well. We must teach people to critically evaluate their information and their use of technology. We must teach them how to sift through the biased information and find the credible sources. PA Forward’s website says it best and really drives these connections home: “Libraries have moved far beyond just being book repositories. They’re agile institutions serving real-life needs. Libraries can be key to powering progress and elevating the quality of life in PA by fueling the types of knowledge essential to success: Basic Literacy, Information Literacy, Civic and Social Literacy, Health Literacy, and Financial Literacy.”

Clearly this is nothing new to me or to any librarian, but when you learn what we are up against in terms of brain development and how technology appeals to the seeking brain, which distracts us and may be fun but ultimately can lead us to less than credible information, you have an even greater understanding of how deep our responsibility is at every stage of a person’s development to help them understand and evaluate information.


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