Throughout centuries writing technologies have consistently altered the processes of reading and writing. With each new technological advance, mankind has continually adapted to the necessary reading and writing skills pertaining to such innovations. The advance from handwriting to print dramatically changed the processes of reading and writing, but now we face a new era of technology: as the world of cyber culture continues to develop. For college students, these progressions of literary technologies have drastically changed the way we think about reading and writing.
Much of a college student’s life is spent researching and obtaining data. In the past, this meant that most students would have to spend endless hours searching and reading through texts in libraries in order to find the proper material to use for research support. Today, on-line college library indexes and databases give students the opportunity to instantaneously find thousands of supporting texts in only a matter of minutes—all the while in the comfort of their own homes.
Eastern Michigan’s on-line library databases offer vast amounts of articles, essays and academic journals ranging from African American Literature to Zoology. The forefront of this convenient technology has drastically changed students’ reading and writing habits and methods of research projects. Sven Birkerts, a literary critic, comments on this new shift of literary techniques in an article titled “Into the electronic Millennium”.
The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are now moving away from—by choice and by societal compulsion. I’m not just talking about disaffected academics either. This shift is happening throughout our culture, away from the patterns and habits of the printed page and toward a new world distinguished by its reliance on electronic communications. (63)
As time progresses, students seem to depend more and more on the use of electronic mediums. Library databases have become another reliable source of information for students. It has been argued that this new convenient researching tool has both enhanced and damaged the ways that students think about writing, but I believe that the benefits far exceed the negative.
The University’s library database system was created for several reasons, but the main motivation for development was to enable the students to read more, pertinent information—at a quicker rate. If I’m searching for support and research in the libraries database on the topic of communication behaviors of young children, all I have to do is follow a few simple steps, and within minutes I’ll have hundreds of documents applicable to that subject. First, I must choose what index and what sources I’d like to look in for supportive information. Because this would be a study of behaviors, I might choose to look under a psychological database. After I’ve chosen the database, I can simply type in a few simple key words to specify my search. Along with keywords, I have the option to add conjunctions, or to specify whether I would like the key word/s to be found in the title, abstract or the body. This quick process filters out many articles not related to the subject of research. Still, a lot of the articles that turn up may not be exactly what I was looking for, but it sure beats shuffling through library shelves. Even if I were to research texts directly from the library, I would still come across many useless articles and essays. The development of this on-line library database system speeds up the research process, which inadvertently gives the students more reading time. Rather than spending several hours searching for information, which may not even be useful, I can spend some time skimming articles in order to find relevant support, and use the remaining time to thoroughly read through the useful texts.
Skimming and filtering does not only relate to finding relevant texts. I can also easily skim through the articles themselves, in order to find specific quotations and support for my research. The process of skimming and filtering involves selective reading, or hyper reading. Rather than flipping though pages of books and journals, I can simply scroll down and read the headings in order to find relevant passages. In an essay tilted “Hyper readers and their Reading Engines,” James Sosnoski supports the act of hyper reading (reading texts online) by stating “Hyper reading of the “constructive” variety is, in my experience, a more selective process than the reading of printed texts customarily allows”. (404) Selective reading omits endless hours of reading useless information.
Spectators have claimed that hyper reading prevents students from grasping the entire concept of a text (kind of like reading only half of a novel). I can agree to this to some extent, but when it comes to finding bits and pieces of information used for support, the basic, not entire, concept may be all that is needed. Sosnoski refers to this process of hyper reading as he suggests that,
One might be tempted to think of it as a problem. In print environments there are contexts in which we tend to believe that one SHOULD read ALL of a stretched text. Some readers (e.g., teachers) worry about other readers (e.g., students) who do not tend to read all of the text…When we consider the popularity of hypertexts, skimming takes on a whole new dimension… Hypertexts are designed so that such intelligent skimming is the norm which helps readers who have too much to read. (408)
These library databases provide so much information, at such a quick rate, that it has become necessary for students to skim and filter as they read. After the relevant information has been found, we are then able thoroughly read through the texts that we know will be helpful. Hyper reading continues to stir up debate: we are now moving from print to screen. Reading screens rather than paper significantly alters the ways in which we read, but just because our habits are changing doesn’t necessarily make online reading less useful, it just changes the way we read.
Obviously one of the most significant changes in reading occurs with the switch from book to the screen. In books and printed text we read solid marked ink letters, but on the screen we must face the resolution clarity of pixels. For me the transition has been smooth—I don’t mind reading text on-line. If I can look up journals on library databases rather than spending hours in a library then I’ll readily subject myself to the “pandemonium” of pixels. In an essay tilted “Twenty Minutes into the Future, or How Are We Moving Beyond the Book?” George Landow suggests that “…at present inadequate screen technology means that information on computer monitors cannot come close to providing the resolution or aesthetic pleasure provided by such printed documents” (217). When I’m researching information for a paper, aesthetic appeal of text is the last thing I’m looking for. All I care about is the information provided— whether it’s directly out of the hard-copy text, or on my screen. I don’t mind suffering through the, sometimes uncomfortable, on-line reading process because it allows me to type in a few key words that will directly link me to specific sources. In an article titled “The Social Life of Documents,” written by Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, the consequences of on-line reading are discussed as they point out that “…you can’t search or link hard copy documents, while the latter point out you can’t read on-line documents in the bath or on the beach, or even at your desk with much ease. There the debate has stood.” (113). Reading on-line text does limit physical and locale flexibility, but these are simply necessary adjustments that must be made. Besides, I can kick back and relax with the time I’ve saved by using library databases. The screen has become a new format for reading: the information of the text remains the same, only the design has changed.
An argument against online reading claims that because articles from databases are generally presented in the same format, that students will be less likely to recall and absorb all of the information provided. Birkerts remarks that,
Changes in information storage and access are bound to impinge on our historical memory. The depth field that is our sense of the past is not only a linguistic construct, but it is in some essential way represented by the book and the physical accumulation of books in library spaces…The database, useful as it is, expunges this content, this sense of chronology, and admits us to a weightless order in which all information is equally accessible. (71)
The uses of databases and hyper reading are continually speculated against: claiming that, to some measure, it degrades the objective of researching; that hyper reading prevents the absorption of knowledge. Technologies, such as the database, are generally used to provide information and support. I might not completely remember everything I’ve read, but after implementing the basic ideas and quotes into my papers an impression of the information has still been made.
The amount of information, made available by these on-line library journals and databases, is seemingly endless. The reader must take the responsibly of properly attending to, and distinguishing between essential and obsolete text. Duguid and Brown claim that “The imaginative crisis that faces us today is the crisis that comes from having too much information at our fingertips…” (201). It’s possible to have too much information, but as long as we are able to filter and request specific text, the vast amount information available will prove to be beneficial. Baron supports and identifies the increasing availability of on-line information as he states that “The new computer communications technology does have ability to increase text exposure even more than it already has in positive, productive ways. The simplest one-word Web search returns pages of documents which themselves link to the expanding universe of text in cyberspace” (51). The focus and absorption of information relies solely on the reader’s attention. Birkerts states that “The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension” (66). As with any type of available text, the inheritance of knowledge depends on the reader’s engagement and comprehension.
On-line databases don’t alter the context of the text, Birkerts recognizes the need for reader attention as he states “The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Print communication requires the active engagements of the reader’s attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation (65).” In order to absorb information from on-line library databases the reader must not only focus their attention to the text for increasing knowledge, but they must also be able to understand what the text is saying.
Some may argue that library databases make researching too easy for the students, but certain indexes use language which is common to that field of study. If a student is unfamiliar with the language or terms of that subject field than they will be less likely to understand and make use of the sources. In an article titled “You Can Always Look It Up…or Can You?” E.D. Hirsch remarks on the essential need of prior knowledge in order to obtain a further understanding of the researched text.
Reference works including the internet are immensely valuable in those constrained circumstances…you can successfully look something up only if you already know quite a lot about a field…where a novice knows very little…But looking things up already has a Catch 22; you already need to know something about the subjects to look it up effectively. (185-186)
Databases make researching more convenient for students, not easier. The journal entries found in library databases are written in a manner that assumes that the reader will be able to comprehend the presented material. If I were to look under the medical index for information about neurology, which I know nothing about, then I would stand to gain very little from it. A student who is familiar with the uses and parts of the brain would, hopefully, be able to understand what the article was saying. The databases include professional academic articles that require a certain level of intelligence from the reader.
On-line databases provide concrete academic based information. When looking for support to write about a certain subject, students must be aware of the authenticity of the information found. Baron remarks on the importance of authenticity from on-line resources by suggesting that “…as more and more people turn to the World Wide Web for information, and as students begin relying on it for their research papers, verifying the reliability and authenticity of that information becomes increasingly important, as does revisiting it later to check quotations or gather more information” (50). Library indexes and databases are safe— they are credible, published articles from academic journals. This vast amount of information can only enhance the writer’s knowledge; therefore enabling them to write more informed, and with more support. On-line library databases also make quoting sources easier and more accurate. If a writer wants to implement a quote from the on-line source all they have to do is simply copy and paste the quotes. Directly copying quotes diminishes any question of inaccuracy. If I am going to use an author’s words for support, I want to be sure that I don’t misconstrue their intentions by accidentally quoting their words incorrectly.
The ability of copying and pasting directly does have a drawback—plagiarism. For many, lazy, students the availability of already typed out text may provide an even easier way to plagiarize other people’s work. The writer is the only one who suffers from such acts. Plagiarism existed before on-line texts were available, and it will continue to subsist. On-line databases may increase the use of plagiarism, but students who use this useful tool should not have to suffer for the ignorance of others.
There may be some negative effects for readers and writers who use these on-line library databases, but the benefits are so great. The availability for supportive information can only enhance the objective of writing. Writers are no longer bound to library hours of operation, but rather seemingly endless amounts of information have become available at any moment. The time that is saved from easily accessing information gives the writer more time to focus on their work. Duguid and Brown comment about how these on-line library database journals have increased the abilities of writing.
…on-line library catalogues providing abstracts, indexing, and in some cases full texts for print have reinforced these journals rater than undermined them. The journals still remain the best social filter for the flood of writing available on any topic as well as the best repositories of the development of ideas and attitudes. In these realms, digital media, as yet, do not compete. The electronic resources, however, have made using print journals much easier… (113)
As a current college student, who spends a lot of time researching, I am very thankful for the convenience that these databases provide. I’m also thankful to say that I’ve never had to live without them, and I hope that I never will. On-line library indexes have given me a more positive view of researching. I never have to worry about finding pertinent information because I know that it’s readably available. As a writer I feel that these databases help to develop and provide support for my research papers. I am able to focus more specifically on my writing rather than spending time trying to find the support. Just because I am not physically shuffling through books in libraries does not mean that I’m not researching—I’m researching only the sources and information necessary. For me, on-line library journals only make the process of reading and writing easier and more efficient.