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The Library as Distraction Barricade

We often think of the library as a service, space, and resource provider but could there be value in the library serving as a withholder? The recent report by Cornell University librarians, published by Ithaka S+R, “A Day in the Life of a (Serious) Researcher,” makes the bold suggestion that libraries could help patrons by ensuring that they are free from digital distractions when they work, such as by creating Wi-Fi-blackout areas, offering check-in services for phones, or renting out laptops with internet blockers or other related applications. Previous Ithaka S+R research demonstrates that patrons most value library space for providing a quiet, distraction-free environment conducive to working individually, but Cornell goes one step further in entertaining the idea that the library’s distraction-free offerings could also extend into mediating patron interaction with digital devices.

The Cornell report’s creative recommendations emanate from the underlying goal of the study: to imagine the future of the library by focusing on the activities and needs of those who will use it. In particular, the researchers on the Cornell study observed that self-management is a “major pre-occupation” for students and researchers:

At all levels of the academic journey, scholars talked about adapting their own preferences of self-discipline to achieve their academic goals, such as turning Wi-Fi off, choosing to work in a cafe, or writing academic papers on their couch… Many researchers are looking for ways to limit distractions, usually from technology, and seeking spaces for isolated work rather than group work.

The observations and recommendations in the Cornell report resonate with broader discourse on the contemporary challenges to fostering productive work environments. An article from 2015 in The Harvard Business Review positions digital overload as potentially the “defining problem of today’s workplace.” The article suggests that to curtail the distraction that accompanies the feeling of overload, people need to move away from multi-tasking and put things aside and shut devices off when focus is required. Mustering the discipline to put digital distractions aside is incredibly difficult and a variety of tools have been developed to help impose that discipline accordingly. These tools generally block access to the internet (e.g. Nanny, Self-Control, Anti-Social, Controlled Multi-tab browsing) or offer timers to provide workers with structure by limiting the time and access to mechanisms that lead to distraction (E.g. Time Out, Concentrate, the Digital Detox app, Isolator).

While tools can be helpful to keep workers focused, what is particularly unique about the Cornell report’s idea is to marry mechanisms to prevent distraction with the physical environment. Could having a delineated space with no Wi-Fi be more effective than an application that blocks Wi-Fi that can be disabled? Would anyone dare sit in such a space? An environment where no one is on the internet could potentially feel very different than the average silent study space.  Considering that libraries are valued for providing distraction-free space, the Cornell report is noteworthy for suggesting that libraries should explore taking that mandate even further.

 

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