Damming the Information Streams

It’s incredible how fast the library gets busy again once the semester starts. This week started out quiet as I caught up on email after returning from vacation, but by the end I was spending my days attending several meetings and in the thick of scheduling classes. I generally prefer to be busier than not, so I’ve been happy for the increase in activity in the library and on campus.

But as my workdays fill up I’ve begun to worry that my strategies for keeping up with library and higher education news and scholarship are wearing thin. It’s so much easier during the summer. Not only is there more time to breathe at work – fewer meetings and classes, quieter reference desk – but there’s also less to read. The publication pace of everything seems to slow down, especially online information sources. My summertime RSS feeds are well-mannered and easy to control, my email inbox usually hovers near zero.

Now that the new academic year has started, there’s much more to read and browse. Items linger in my feed reader for days at a time and emailed table of contents alerts from library databases pile up. On my desk there’s a stack of articles I’d planned to read over the summer, and several books I requested from other libraries at my university have come in all at once. This week I realized that I’m suddenly swamped by my information streams.

Clearly this calls for a new strategy. This week I re-read Sarah Houghton-Jan’s excellent article on information overload published in Ariadne last year, which offers loads of good advice for keeping up and staying sane. Encouraged by her suggestions, I headed to my RSS reader and weeded feeds mercilessly. I also reorganized them by priority into several folders—critical, desirable, and optional—which I hope will make it easier for me to ignore less important items until there’s time to read them.

I also plan to cull many of my table of contents alerts, as I’ve found them to be something of a double-edged sword. It’s important to me to keep up with what’s new in the library literature, but ultimately I’ve printed more articles than I’ve had time to read (which accounts for the pile on my desk). So I’m going to cancel several of my alerts and let myself off the hook with the journals that remain. If an article catches my eye, I’ll try to take the time to scan through it before adding it to my To Read folder. I’m hopeful that this will help shrink my current stack of articles, and maybe facilitate more thorough reading of the articles I do print out.

Finally, I’m going to try and build intentional time for reading into my schedule. For many of us this time is built into the daily commute. That won’t work for me, but I still think I can carve some time out of my daily schedule to devote to reading. Once I’ve made all of these changes I’m not sure if I’ll end up reading more than I do now, or less. But if these strategies help me read more thoughtfully and feel less buried, then that’s a worthwhile trade.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

6 thoughts on “Damming the Information Streams”

  1. Thanks for this great advice! Term hasn’t even started for me yet, but I’m already falling behind on reading. Culling my RSS feeds has always been something I’ve struggled with, but I also believe that keeping the amount of blogs I read manageable is the key to solving information overload (for me anyways).

  2. Maura — I really appreciate your comments. I’m three weeks into a new job and the first thing that had to go was (believe it or not) the TV. Sleep is at a premium. Your comment on building “intentional time for reading” really has given me a lot to think about.

  3. Thank you, Maura, for your insights. I regularly go through my feed reader and weed out sites that haven’t updated in a while or ones that I know longer read. Google reader has a bare bones stats system that helps me out (though, it could be better).

    One question: what alert service do you use for your table of contents alerts?

  4. I’m so glad to hear that others are grappling with these same issues. So far, so good for me, though we’ll see how it goes when our busy instruction season kicks in.

    Robin, I agree that sleep is paramount. I let my sleep discipline slide last fall during my first real semester at my job and I’m convinced that I was more stressed for it.

    John, I usually just have WilsonWeb and EBSCO email journal TOC alerts to me. This is not necessarily the best way — they all come in on the same day so it can feel like a temporary email overload. For OA journals using the Open Journal Systems I get them via RSS and read with Google (my usual feed reader), which I vastly prefer. I should add it to my list to check to see if I can switch the emails to RSS.

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