The best session at the recent Wiley-Blackwell executive seminar was not the panel on institutional repositories that I shared with Ann Okerson and Ellen Finnie Duranceau. Oh, I think we did a fine job, and I was pleased at how we reinforced each other's messages while still presenting our own individual slants on the topic. I think it was good for the assembled publishers to hear, from three librarians, that while IRs are definitely playing a role in the transformation of the scholarly publishing landscape, there is no evidence that they present some sort of open access panacea and challenge to traditional journals. (This is not to say that traditional journals aren't at great risk, just that IRs are not the silver bullet that's going to do them in).
All of the presentations were good, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was David M. Levy's talk on Information Overload. He presented a brief historical tour of the information overload problem, going back to Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 article. Levy suggests that what we've witnessed since then are several peaks of information overload, each accompanied by technological solutions that promised to provide us with a greater ability to manage that overload, but which inevitably ended up exacerbating it. And he thinks that we're at that point again, as we suffer under the vast weight of email (which we allow to interrupt us continuously, as if the most important thing at any moment is the random email message that has just landed in our inbox), and the overwhelming variety of information sources that flow over us continuously.
What we have lost in all of this is time for contemplation, time to think. And he believes that turning to technology to provide us a solution is the wrong strategy. We need to correct the balance by changing the way that we do things and the way that we respond to the world around us. To the assembled publishers he said we need to publish less -- which requires changing the academic reward structure to privilege quality over quantity.
We were talking a bit between sessions and I mentioned the importance to me of my own morning routine -- the hour or so that I take at the start of every day to write, which is my way of having some protected time to think, to let my thoughts roam. When the travel schedule or work pressures deny me that time, I feel it in the added stress of the day.
Coincidentally, as I was flying home from DC, I was finishing Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. In the penultimate chapter, de Botton invokes Ruskin and his years spent as a drawing teacher. Ruskin taught drawing not because he hoped to turn every student into a master draftsman, but because he believed that drawing helped one to see and to find the beauty that is inherent in all things. It requires patience, it requires one to slow down, it requires one to really look into things and not just past them. It seemed to me that de Botton's message and Levy's were addressing the same need.
It's been a particularly hectic and intense fall, so it's a message that I need to hear. Levy's got a couple of recent articles on the topic that I want to look up -- and read slowly. Things are winding down at the library -- I've got a few meetings this week, but nothing too pressing. And then I'm taking two weeks off. And I'm not making any plans.